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2023 Position Review: Defensive Line

Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

The 2023 season is wrapped so it’s time to look back on the D-Line preview from August and compare it with how the season shook out for the bunch.

The main concern I had coming in, one that I’ve had the last few years, is that of injuries. With names like K.J. Henry, Myles Murphy, and Bryan Bresee off to the NFL, the defensive line needed to stay healthy. While there were minor injuries, and things got a little dicey in the middle of the year depth-wise, overall they seemed to have good injury luck.

Let’s dive in with the starters.

Photo by Isaiah Vazquez/Getty Images

Tyler Davis (467 snaps, 45 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 8 QBP)

I mentioned before the year that Tyler Davis wouldn’t have returned had it not been for Ruke convincing him, and I’m so thankful he did. By all accounts, Davis was critical in helping the younger linemen progress. But more importantly, Davis once again acted as the anchor of a great defensive line. He saw the 2nd most snaps and secured the most tackles of anyone on the line. His playstyle isn’t the flashiest, but he gets the job done and does it right.

After some rough injury seasons to start his career, we’ve now seen two straight years of Davis staying healthy. Let’s hope that trend keeps up and we get to see him in the NFL for years to come.

Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Ruke Orhorhoro (412 snaps, 22 tackles, 8 TFL, 5 sacks, 1 PBU, 4 QBP)

The thing I was most excited about coming into the year was seeing what Ruke would do. The former 3-star end has blossomed as an interior lineman over his career and 2023 was his first year as the out-and-out starter. Well, skinny little Ruke had another great season, seeing over 400 snaps and grabbing quite a few ball carriers in the backfield along the way. He was in the backfield a lot for someone his size (6-4, 291), and his ability to use leverage and stifle a running game reminds me of Grady Jarrett.

I was hopeful that a good showing in 2023 would propel Ruke into the NFL as an early-round pick and it’s looking like that could be the case, especially if he has a good showing in the Senior Bowl. I’ve seen many linemen come and go at Clemson but Orhorhoro is up there with my favorite ever, and I am wishing him the best of luck at the next level.

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Justin Mascoll (339 snaps, 25 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 sack, 2 PBU, 5 QBP)

2023 was a big role increase for 6th-year senior Justin Mascoll, making 11 starts opposite XT on the edge. And while he wasn’t flashy, he held down his side of the field well, virtually matching Thomas’s stats. (They both have famous hits on Syracuse QBs too, weird.) He is one of only six players in Clemson history to appear in 60+ games, so it will be weird not having Mascoll on the depth chart. He’s progressed a lot in his career, and I think he did enough to at least get into NFL camps this offseason.

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Xavier Thomas (480 snaps, 28 tackles, 4 TFL, 3 sacks, 4 PBU, 21 QBP)

In the season preview, I mentioned that it feels like a decade since we first saw Xavier Thomas in a Clemson uniform. An all-world recruit who got to Clemson at the same time as Trevor Lawrence, many expected Clemson to be a short stop on his NFL journey. But sadly a disastrous 2020 season started a chain of events that knocked his career off the tracks and he just couldn’t seem to recover.

Well, in 2023 he was on the field for the vast majority of the year, but he just didn’t jump off the page like in years past. He simply can’t out-talent tackles like he used to and the technical pass-rushing abilities he would need to compensate are under-developed. He wasn’t a liability in any sense, he was always in the QB’s face and causing bad throws. But you can’t help but compare a player with his past self and think more of those pressures become sacks had it been 2019.

I appreciate him sticking it out, playing in bowl games, and being a good representative of Clemson. In hindsight, though, I wish Thomas had left for the NFL years ago - after 2020 or 2021. Now, I’m just hoping someone takes a chance on him in the middle rounds.

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T.J. Parker (457 snaps, 41 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 2 PBU, 10 QBP)

Speaking of Xavier Thomas, we have the reincarnation of 2018 Xavier Thomas here in Phenix City native T.J. Parker. In the season preview, I mentioned the rumblings of “T.J. Parker is good” talk, and man, every bit of it turned out to be true. He was by far and away the best defensive end for Clemson in 2023.

Technically starting only three times, the true freshman Parker ended up playing more than Justin Mascoll, coming up third among all the D-linemen in total snaps played. The man is all over the field, with a dozen TFLs (a Clemson freshman record) and half a dozen sacks. He’s quick off the line and has a great nose for the ball carrier, but most of all he has a fantastic pursuit. His ability to close space and chase down just about anyone is remarkable. Seriously, find some of his highlights and try not to get excited for the future of Clemson’s new star on the edge.

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Peter Woods (307 snaps, 27 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 10 QBP)

Shifting over to the other freshman phenom on the line, looking at Peter Woods’ 2023 is like taking a glimpse into the future of a Clemson star. He explodes off the line and has a great sense of timing the snap just right. He ended the season as one of PFF’s top-rated run defenders and is usually in the QB’s face. And it’s not all just raw talent - his technical abilities got better and better as the season went along.

Playing behind Davis and Orhorhoro without a doubt had a hand in that progress. Logging just over 300 snaps, Woods was a critical rotation piece in the line but didn’t play quite as much as many expected. I’m not worried, though, with the tackles ahead of him clearing out, his usage should shoot up in 2024. I’m excited to see what Nick Eason can continue to do with a talent like Woods.

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Payton Page (238 snaps, 11 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 8 QBP)

Page came to Clemson as a four-star recruit who has been a solid contributor his whole career. His role has increased each of the last three years and he’s responded well. He’s got great size and is stout in the middle against the run. Not much more you can ask for. I’m interested to see how a battle between him, Capehart, and redshirt Vic Burley plays out.

DeMonte Capehart (179 snaps, 16 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 PBU, 9 QBP)

Capehart was a guy that, coming into the year, I expected to either get a lot more playing time or transfer. Capehart had dealt with a few different annoying injuries early in his career, but down the stretch in 2023 blossomed into one of Clemson’s more effective linemen. An extremely physical player, I’m looking for this trend to continue into next year as we figure out who will start alongside Peter Woods.

Conclusion

Coming into the season I said that the D-Line success more or less hinged on staying healthy for the course of a season. And while that did happen, 2023 was still a bit of a different role for Clemson’s defensive line. They’re used to being the center of attention but the linebackers were busy taking up that limelight. Still, even in a relatively quiet year, the group performed well and gave us quite a bit to be excited about in 2024.