In last year’s D-Line preview, I thought Clemson should have one of the best position groups in the country, but I hedged those words a lot. With extra emphasis on “should” given the injury history of just about every member of the group.
This year the worries largely remain the same - it could still be a very good defensive line, but the group will need to avoid any signs of an injury bug striking once again. Unlike 2022 they won’t have unlimited experience on the depth chart. Myles Murphy, K.J. Henry, and Bryan Bresee are all gone to the NFL, along with a few depth pieces to graduation and the portal.
It’s not all worries, don’t get me wrong! The interior line is scary for one, and the freshmen joining the group have really impressed. Clemson again has an extremely experienced starting line with a lot of young depth to get excited about.
In fact, let's go ahead and get into it.
Position Coach: Lemanski Hall (6th year as DE coach)
First team: Justin Mascoll (Gr.), Xavier Thomas (Gr.)
Second team: Cade Denhoff (RS So.), T.J. Parker (Fr.)
Third team: Zaire Patterson (RS So.), Jahiem Lawson (RS Fr.)
Forth team: David Ojiegbe (Fr.), A.J. Hoffler (Fr.)
When Xavier Thomas came to Clemson as the #4 recruit in the same recruiting class as Trevor Lawrence, I was sure he would be a star and off to the league ASAP. Built like a tank on legs, he’s got a lot of burst and speed, he came on as an immediate impact with freshman all-American honors. But thanks to a shoulder injury, a concussion, several illnesses, and a foot injury that took eons to heal, his career is a bit off track.
All accounts I can find say he should be fully back to being himself this year, making 2023 a chance to prove why he was so highly rated. Clemson needs what he can do at full strength, but at this point, we’ll just have to wait and see if that happens. If you check his official Clemson roster page you’ll see the 2018 hit on Eric Dungey playing on loop, I am very hopeful that Xavier Thomas is back in 2023.
Alongside XT is fellow grad student Justin Mascoll, a long-time rotational player that will be thrust into a more complete role this year. According to Coach Hall, he’s done well with the transition to full-time starter, gaining weight and elevating his vocal leadership. I’ve always respected Mascoll’s motor and willingness to go out and do whatever the team needs. That experience will work well for him this year.
Moving onto the rotational guys, first is Cade Denhoff. A 6’5” 255lb redshirt sophomore that we’ve only seen in 20 total plays, with 19 snaps last year over 7 games and 1 in his redshirt year. He was a 4-star out of high school, so it will be exciting to see what he can do with more playing time.
Next up is freshman T.J. Parker from the rapidly developing Clemson pipeline of Phenix City, Alabama. At 6’3” 255lbs, he’s of the same mold and playstyle as Xavier Thomas, and he’s already done enough to thoroughly impress Dabo. He’s slotted in just behind XT on the chart, which should be perfect for him. I guess you could say he reminds me of XT - just not as terrifying. He’ll get there, trust the Clemson strength program.
Deeper into the rotation we have redshirt sophomore Zaire Patterson. Patterson has all the measurables you could ask for but both Dabo and Hall think that he needs to really commit himself and he could be great. We see if he can make that jump or if Parker took that chance out from under him.
Former star DE Shaq Lawson’s younger brother Jahiem Lawson is coming off of his redshirt year. A 3-star out of high school, he adds good depth and plenty more competition to this end rotation. At the same time he was praising Parker, Dabo also had good things to say about freshmen David Ojiegbe and A.J. Hoffler as showing potential. But I would expect them to go the traditional route of special teams development with occasional time at the end of blowouts while they put on weight and gain experience.
Position Coach: Nick Eason (2nd year at Clemson as a coach)
First team: Tyler Davis (Gr.), Ruke Orhorhoro (Gr.)
Second team: Payton Page (Jr.), Peter Woods (Fr.)
Third team: Tré Williams (RS Jr.), Demonte Capehart (RS Jr.)
Fourth team: Caden Story (RS Fr.), Stephiylan Green (Fr.), Vic Burley (Fr.)
Last year I said I had never been more excited for a group of defensive tackles at Clemson, but that’s only because I couldn’t see this year coming.
I was surprised enough last year that Tyler Davis didn’t go to the NFL, you can thank Ruke for that. But because of Davis’s stellar 2022 and the fact that it took some convincing to get him back for it in the first place, I thought by now he’d be in the NFL. But no, Davis just can’t get enough of the Clemson interior and is here for year five with Ruke by his side as the full-time starter this time.
Dabo calls him “Baby Dex” and KJ Henry called him “Mini-Fridge”, I guess because calling Davis the cornerstone of the line wouldn’t roll off the tongue. He was absolutely vital to the team last year as injuries and fatigue set in, racking up 5.5 sacks and 9.5 TFLs over 495 snaps.
Beside Davis is Ruke Orhorhoro, who is rapidly becoming my favorite Clemson player. He’s spent the last few years as a key rotational guy before a breakout 2022 season as Bryan Bresee’s fill-in, with 8 TFLs and 4 sacks on 495 snaps, same as Davis. He was a 3-star DE out of high school but he’s put on weight to get to 300lbs (even though he still says he’s skinny) and is blossoming into a featured starter on this defense. With Bresee in New Orleans, look for 2023 to be a big step forward for Ruke, hopefully launching him into the early rounds of the draft in the process.
Oh, and we have to talk about Peter Woods. Of all the young linemen that have impressed, he’s done the most. At 6’2” and 315lbs, he has the size he needs, but most of the time it takes a couple of seasons for the college strength training to take over. Plus Dabo usually throws linemen onto special teams for a few years while they learn the ropes - Woods seems like he’ll be a key piece of the rotation day one. Dabo even says he is ahead of where Christian Wilkins and Bryan Bresee were at this same point in their careers. According to ESPN, he was the #4 recruit in his class last year so his being good is no shock, but it is a welcome addition to this DT rotation.
Alongside Woods, we have former high 4-star Payton Page who managed to log almost 300 snaps last year, and always seems to be near the action. He should add valuable depth this year along with Woods, especially with their similar builds. Page is slightly larger than Woods at 6’4” and weighs the same 315lb, both should be able to do well as they prepare to take over the starting roles in 2024.
Getting deeper into the interior rotation we have a couple of redshirt juniors Tré Williams and Demonte Capehart, who seem a lot alike in a lot of ways. Both feel like guys who should be contributing more but got lost in the shuffle due to some untimely injuries and Clemson’s never-ending well of D-Linemen. Both show flashes from time to time of what they can do, but that just leaves you wanting to see more out of them. Hopefully, they can stay healthy this year and contribute more. I wouldn’t be stunned if one or both of them portals away by this time next year so they can get playing time.
Rounding out the interior line we have a few newcomers. Caden Story is a redshirt freshman from Alabama, a very talented 4-star who flipped from Auburn to Clemson at the last minute. He didn’t play much at all last year but linemen usually take time. Expect a few dozen snaps for him this year. It’s a similar story with true freshman Stephiylan Green, another 4-star, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he redshirts while he puts on some weight.
Lastly, 5-star recruit Vic Burley looked like he might be another exciting rotational guy along with Woods. But recent news of a knee injury in practice will at least leave him out for a chunk of the season, the timeline for return is unclear as of now. I would expect a redshirt with him too, but you might see him get a decent number of snaps if he’s able to get healthy.
It feels as though every year I have a similar conclusion to these defensive line previews. This group looks great, like a group that can compete with anyone they line up against and will happily ruin an offensive coordinator's day. These coaches have proven they know how to use the talents they have, and there is a lot of young talent ready to gain experience. Barring injury, this should be yet another stellar Clemson defensive line.