Defensive Line: From Liability To Strength
Up until last season, one of the constants for the Clemson Tigers during their string of five consecutive playoff appearances had been dominant defensive line play.
After losing the entire defensive front following the 2018 national championship season, there were concerns about how the Tigers would fare in 2019, having to replace so much. Those concerns turned out to be valid ones, as the team went through what some might call a transition season on the defensive line.
The Tigers had little to no depth along the interior, and the inexperience at end was readily apparent often times throughout the season. The team was forced into going away from the more traditional four man front, in favor of a three man front.
However, don't expect that to become a trend. Clemson signed one of the best recruiting classes in the country in 2020, headlined by some elite level defensive lineman that will provide an instant influx of talent up front.
"Myles Murphy is as advertised," head coach Dabo Swinney said. "I mean you're just like, 'Wow.' Same thing with Bryan Bresee. Same thing with Demonte Capehart. It's just impressive to see those guys out here. Yeah, it'll be instant competition, that's for sure."
While the Tigers may have taken a step back up front on the defensive side of the ball last season, that doesn't mean they were lacking in the talent department. Clemson's troubles stemmed more from inexperience and lack of depth, and Swinney notices the difference in his returning players.
"Darnell (Jeffries) is a year better," Swinney said. "Jordan (Williams) is a year better. And it's the same thing at end, the exact same thing. K.J. Henry hadn't really played and he was kind of just happy-go-lucky. And now he's just kind of gotten really serious about it. I mean he's got a chance to be really special. Same thing with Justin Mascoll, he doesn't look like the same guy. He looks so much more confident."
Many players tend to make the biggest jump in their development between their first and second year. Before spring practice was cut short, Swinney had been encouraged by what he had seen from some of the second year players.
"It's just unbelievably night and day from where we were last year," Swinney said. "I mean you talk about Etinosa Reuben and Ruke Orhorhoro are developmental guys that didn't even play football 'till their junior years in high school. They were soccer players and basketball players, and this time last year they showed up and it's just like, 'Man, they don't even know how to get in a stance hardly.' It's just a lot to learn. And they're night and day compared to where they were. It's just so exciting to see that."
One player who will be heavily scrutinized headed into the 2020 season is defensive end Xavier Thomas. After coming to Clemson with no shortage of hype, the rising junior has shown flashes, but has yet to play up to his potential. However, Swinney expects to see a different Thomas this season.
"Same thing with Xavier Thomas," Swinney said. "As a freshman he was just go in there, cut it loose and run around, and last year he had to become a more complete player and it was some growing pains for him, you know? Because there's a lot that he's got to improve on, a lot to learn. And that helps you. That experience is so ... you can't put a price on that. And I think he's just going to have a tremendous year."
The Tigers inability to generate a consistent pass rush with the front four was one of the teams biggest weaknesses in 2019. Heading into next season it is an issue that seems to be fixed.