Xavier Thomas Planning on Redshirt Season

Brad Senkiw

Junior defensive end Xavier Thomas was a practice participant when Clemson opened up 2020 fall camp Thursday, but he isn't expected to be much of a participant this entire season. 

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said Thomas isn't opting out of playing this fall, but there is a plan to redshirt Thomas because of health issues. 

"We are actually holding him out for medical reasons...treating him, you know like an injury," Swinney said after the first full team workout of camp. "(Thomas) probably had more on him than anybody since March. He was having a great spring, super excited about the season and really had a lot of goals about what he wanted to do this summer to really ready himself for a big year."

However, that work was halted when Thomas contracted COVID-19 followed by strep throat. He wasn't able to work out the way he needed to during the pandemic and the separation from his team. Swinney said Thomas gained 10-12 pounds and was in a "bad place mentally."

"But then we get back going with our mandatory stuff, and it was pretty obvious early on that he's just nowhere near where he needs to be to play football," Swinney said. "The number one thing is that these guys are healthy. And the last thing we want to do is for X to try to go and be half of his potential and, so I really I'm really proud of X. A lot of maturity on his part, and a lot of self-awareness, you know, on his part to just say, 'You know what, I'm not (ready).'"

Swinney said there's a plan in place that's similar to what linebacker James Skalski went through in 2018. Thomas will work on getting healthy physically and mentally without the pressure of playing, and the staff hopes he will play in the four-game maximum that allows players to retain their eligibility for the next season. 

"He's really embraced his role," Swinney said. "It's awesome to see him out here to really support these guys and coaching these guys and hopefully he's ready to come back and play."

Thomas is expected to graduate in December, Swinney said. There's hope that he'll fulfill what's been a career of great expectations. Thomas, a former 5-star prospect from Florence, S.C., and IMG Academy, has played in 27 games and made eight starts in two seasons.

Clemson credits Thomas with 74 career tackles, 18.5 tackles for a loss, 5.5 sacks, four pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

Thomas was ranked third overall in the 2018 recruiting class, according to the 247 Sports Composite, and the top player in the country at his position. Only three Tigers (Trevor Lawrence, Da’Quan Bowers and Dexter Lawrence) graded higher than Thomas in the history of 247 Sports’ ratings of Clemson signees.

Thomas showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman while playing behind Clelin Ferrell, a first-round draft pick, and Austin Bryant. Thomas had a game-sealing sack of Syracuse QB Eric Dungey in 2018 that’s still remembered.

However, last season didn’t allow Thomas to build upon those highlights very often. Clemson’s move to a primary 3-3-5 defensive scheme limited his role as a true edge rusher, and the focal point of the defense was the linebacker/safety hybrid Isaiah Simmons and the experienced secondary.

Thomas also began the season in the doghouse with the coaching staff, having to work his way up the depth chart during fall camp for undisclosed reasons. He was then slowed by a concussion that cost him three full games, but even when he did play, he only had two sacks and none after Week 3 at Syracuse.

A move back to the traditional 4-3 in 2020 and a renewed attitude and focus during a shortened spring gave Clemson belief he’d bounce back and play an integral role this fall.

Instead, it'll be a slower process for a player who has first-round NFL draft potential. He just needs the opportunity to live up to it.

"(Thomas) just realized he just wasn't where you need to be," Swinney said. "And so we have a great plan and a great option to decide every way possible I certainly wish we'd have Thomas. He's about as good as it gets, but we wouldn't want him to be out there without the best first, so it's got a bright bright future."

It’s likely that the Tigers are going to use a heavy rotation on a defensive line unit that’s more of strength on paper this year, even with Thomas' situation. He was listed as a co-starter with K.J. Henry on the fall camp depth chart. Justin Foster is listed as a starter on the other side, and the Tigers also have Myles Murphy, Justin Mascoll and Greg Williams on the depth chart.

"I feel good about (depth)," Swinney said. "Even if we didn't have that, this is what's best for X."

No Tigers, according to Swinney, are opting out of the 2020 season. 

"Tomorrow could bring something different, who knows? Anything can change in a day," Swinney said. "But we've not had any of our guys opt out. All are here, excited about rocking and rolling."