Clemson’s defensive line is rarely lacking for talent, but often it’s had to reload after a slew of the large men head to the pros. As last season drew to a close, I assumed that would be the case again. So when K.J. Henry, Xavier Thomas, and Tyler Davis announced their plans to return, one thing became clear: Clemson’s 2022 defensive front four should be one of the top units in the nation, if it isn’t the outright best.
The standard-bearing unit for Clemson’s defense for nearly a decade, 2019 through 2021 featured a slight bit of a drop-off from elite status. This is not to say they were bad in any sense, just that the insane depth fans became used to in the “WEEE TOOOO DEEEP” era had finally started thinning out. Headed into 2022, that depth should be back, and the unit as a whole should return to being the rock-solid defensive foundation Clemson fans are used to.
I keep saying “should” (with italics for emphasis) because the theme of the last few years along the line has been that of injuries. Tyler Davis looks fantastic in the play we’ve seen from him, but each of his last two seasons have featured chunks marred by injury. It’s a similar story with Bryan Bresee, a world beater when we see him, but those glimpses have been a bit rare with the shoulder and knee injuries he’s dealt with. Dabo says Bresee is doing well since tearing his ACL vs NC State last September, but knee injuries are hard to gauge sometimes, so it could take a bit of time before he’s back to his old self. Backup Tre Williams underwent a knee scope a few weeks ago following a weight room injury. Williams will only be out for a short time, thankfully, but he’s dealt with nagging injuries for years. That’s a lot, and that’s just the tackles.
As far as the ends go, snake-bitten Xavier Thomas is out for the first few weeks of the season already due to foot surgery. He’s been dealt some bad hands in the past, including a bad case of COVID-19 and strep throat keeping him out in 2020, plus a concussion in 2019. Fingers crossed that the injury bug stops biting Clemson there.
If it does keep biting, though, Clemson’s got plenty of depth on the line.
Position coach: Lemanski Hall (5th year as DE coach)
First team: Myles Murphy; K.J. Henry OR Xavier Thomas
Second team: Greg Williams; Justin Mascoll
Third team: Cade Denhoff; Kevin Swint
Even with Thomas out for the first part of the season, it’s really hard not to get excited for this group of defensive ends. Given Clemson’s history of playing the vast majority of the roster, we could easily end up seeing them go seven-deep on the end rotation. With so many of these ends likely headed off next year, it’s vital to build experience for players like Williams, Swint, and Denhoff. The hydra-like pass rush will be bearing down almost every play once again.
I’m expecting a lot out of Junior Myles Murphy. The former all-world recruit has only gotten better year-over-year. He has elite lateral movement abilities, eye-popping explosiveness, and a relentless motor. Overall, his combination of size, speed, smarts, and strength makes him a virtual lock for the first round in 2023.
With Thomas out for now I’m also looking to see what Senior K.J. Henry can do as the main option opposite Murphy. A former 5-star who’s always had the “raw, but full of potential” tag, Henry is finally at the make or break point in his career. He has good football intelligence and hand talent, plus fantastic length. If his pass-rush production goes way up, I think can make it at the next level, but that remains to be seen.
Once Xavier Thomas rejoins the lineup, he too is going to have limited time to prove that he was deserving of the hype he got out of high school. When he arrived on campus, I thought for sure that he would be a 3-and-out end that goes in the first round, but that clearly didn’t happen. Don’t be surprised if that rush to prove himself means he tries to get on the field at every possible opportunity. Hopefully, he comes back from surgery at full strength and can slot into the end rotation with ease.
Another player to expect increased numbers from is Senior Justin Mascoll. He’s seen limited action in his career so far but is a former 4-star recruit that has proven his talent when on the field. Junior Greg Williams is a bit different. Watch for how the converted inside linebacker progresses as he continues to learn the edge position.
Rounding out ends that should see the field is redshirt freshman Cade Denhoff — a former four-star that just needs experience — and Junior Kevin Swint. Just like Greg Williams, Swint arrived as a 3-star inside linebacker but has done well in transitioning to the outside edge. More playing time will only help both improve as they prepare to take on more snaps in 2023.
Position coach: Nick Eason (1st year at Clemson as a coach)
First team: Bryan Bresee; Tyler Davis
Second team: Ruke Orhorhoro; Tre Williams
Third team: Etinosa Reuben; DeMonte Capehart
Fourth team: Payton Page; Jabriel Robinson
I’m excited about the ends, I am, but I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited to see the tackles. Bryan Bresee is a joy to watch work, Tyler Davis is one of the most underrated players in the country, and Ruke Orhorhoro just continues to improve game after game.
When he’s healthy, the 310lbs and 6’5” Bresee can do anything you ask a tackle to do. Despite only seeing action on 154 snaps in four games last year before tearing his ACL, Bresee was named 3rd-team All-ACC for his efforts. If he isn’t double-teamed, running towards Bresee is futile. If he is double-teamed, though, running against him is only... extremely difficult. His burst off the line is unbelievable and his power on contact is enough to push just about any lineman off his spot. If he comes back this season at full strength, I think he’ll make an NFL team very happy in 2023.
Next to Bresee is the criminally underrated Tyler Davis. A key piece in Clemson’s defense since he arrived in 2019. He doesn’t have the same athleticism as Bresee, but his ability to eat up blocks makes it much easier to get Bresee one-on-one with a lineman. Davis reminds me a lot of Grady Jarrett, in every way. Like Jarrett, he’s “undersized” but still somehow knows how to get leverage on every lineman he faces. Like Jarrett, his motor is constant and he rarely gets fooled. Jarrett almost felt like he was an intrinsic part of any Clemson defense in history; like he’d always been here and will always be here. Davis feels the exact same, he is a cornerstone of Clemson’s defensive game plan and vital to its success.
Moving onto the second team, we have Ruke Orhorhoro, a player that would undoubtedly be a starter anywhere in the country — except Clemson. Orhorhoro stepped up to fill in for Bresee when he went down last season and did an excellent job in nine starts. Like Davis, he has an unnatural ability to gain leverage on any lineman, plus he’s a deceptively in-shape 300lbs; he even claims that he’s skinny. And he would be starting this year too, if not for his own efforts to get Tyler Davis back for another year. A selfless teammate, Orhorhoro would much rather have a better team than have more opportunities for playing time. Plus he’s a DT that wears #33, what’s not to love about that?
RS Sophomore Tre Williams sits behind Tyler Davis in the nose tackle rotation. He’s built a lot like Davis, but as I mentioned before he is out with a knee injury. A former four-star, he is talented but has had bad injury luck, missing games in all three of his seasons at Clemson so far. If he can shake off the knee scope and avoid anything else, it will be interesting to see how he does this year.
The third and fourth teams will see increased playing time with Williams out. Reuben rotates in as valuable relief for Bresee and Orhorhoro. And by all accounts, Page and Capehart have taken advantage of the extra reps, they’ll contribute more in 2022.
That was a lot. But it’s clear Clemson once again has the depth on the D-Line to make any offense’s life hell. Even though the injury bug looms over the group like the Sword of Damocles, this is still one of the most talented front 7s that Clemson has ever had. In any case, it will be exciting to see what Lemanski Hall, Nick Eason, and Wes Goodwin can get out of these men.