Editor’s note: @ClemsonSI is running a series of 10 positional breakdowns each day reviewing the 2019 season.
One of the biggest storylines of the offseason focused on the fact that Clemson Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables was facing the challenge of having to replace his entire front four. Not just any front four either.
Venables was looking at replacing a defensive line that consisted of three first round draft picks, and one fourth guy who ended up being selected in the fourth round. This would be no easy task, regardless of the talent waiting in the wings, as there were some awfully big shoes to fill.
On the outside, Clemson had no shortage of talented youngsters competing for playing time. Sophomore Xavier Thomas, redshirt sophomore Logan Rudolph, junior Justin Foster, and redshirt freshmen KJ Henry and Justin Mascoll all saw significant playing time at defensive end.
Foster started 13 of the teams 15 games, and his 492 snaps were the most of any end on the team. Thomas played 434 snaps (missed three games due to injury), and Rudolph logged 403. Henry saw his playing time increase as the season wore on, logging 350 snaps, while Mascoll was on the field for 244.
Strengths: One of the biggest strengths of this group was their speed. At times, it seemed that speed might have been relied on too much. Multiple times throughout the season, there were examples of a defensive end overrunning plays, whether it was a running back still in the backfield, or a quarterback that should have been sacked.
However, that speed allowed for the ends to get into defensive backfields quickly, enabling them to make a multitude of plays that resulted in tackles for loss. The five combined for 28 tackles for loss, with Foster leading the way with 10.5.
Weaknesses: One of the more glaring weaknesses of this group was the inexperience. It's one thing to play a reserve role as underclassmen, but when it comes to stepping into a primary role and being expected to produce play in and play out, it isn't uncommon to see some inconsistency, which is exactly what was seen with the Tigers group of defensive ends in 2019.
Combined, the five players seeing time at DE registered just 9.5 sacks, a major drop off from what the Tigers had been getting from the position the previous few years. Their inability to get to opposing quarterbacks was an issue all season. Thomas, who was expected to do big things as a pass rusher in 2019, had just two sacks, in what was an up and down season.
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Another area the group struggled at times with was getting the edge set in run defense. It wasn't unusual to see one of the ends getting sealed off on a running play, instead of instantly reacting and getting the edge set before the opposing running back got outside.
There were even more questions regarding the interior of the defensive line as the 2019 season approached. The team looked to be fairly thin at the position, with just redshirt junior Nyles Pinckney and redshirt freshman Jordan Williams as the only two players with any experience.
There were some talented freshman that had just joined the team, but only Tyler Davis was ready to really contribute as a freshman, and contribute he did. Davis' 539 snaps were the most of all the defensive linemen, as he quickly became the anchor of the new look front four.
Strengths: There were legitimate concerns about the interior losing some size from 2018, and how they would hold up against the run. The Clemson defense allowed just 3.2 yards per carry on the season, and that all starts up front, with the big defensive tackles. It was a concern that ended up being a strength.
The Tigers might have been smaller on the interior, but they were quicker. Davis, Pinckney, and Williams were consistently able to push opposing offensive linemen into their own backfield. The numbers alone say they were better at rushing the passer than the actual pass rushers on the outside.
Pinckney was named 3rd team All ACC, while Davis was named to the 2nd team, and became the first true freshman to start a season opener for Clemson at DT since 1974. He was also named a freshman All American by ESPN.
Weaknesses: The biggest weakness here was the lack of depth, which really showed during the CFP when Pinckney was injured. That lack of depth was likely a factor in Brent Venables experimenting with the three man front looks throughout the season. Not to say it was the sole reason, but likely one of multiple factors.
All things considered, the defensive line held its own in the first season after the departure of the Power Rangers. Inexperience on the outside, and the lack of depth on the inside, were the two biggest culprits.
Looking toward next season, Clemson absolutely need its defensive ends to generate more pressure on the quarterback. One look at the incoming recruiting class, and it is safe to assume they will. That class will also provide the much needed depth on the inside, as well as gaining some of that size they were missing this season.
Overall Grade: B-