Justin Foster's return is neither massive nor minuscule, but it does shore up an edge rusher unit that could become one of the greatest in Clemson history.
The 2018 defensive line that helped Clemson win a national title was the best collective unit Dabo Swinney has had. Still, the 2021 defensive end room is a Myles Murphy sophomore jump and a breakout from either K.J. Henry or Xavier Thomas away from closely rivaling Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell.
Even lumping in Christian Wilkins, who rushed off the edge and played defensive tackle in 2018.
This production came in a season where head coach Dabo Swinney and the Tigers finished 14-1, playing three more full contests than 2020's iteration that dealt with constant injuries and COVID-19 related stress throughout the year. Despite three fewer games, 2020's roster had only three fewer sacks at 46 than 2016's team had with 49.
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While the sack leaders a year ago were both linebackers (Baylon Spector, Trenton Simpson with 4.5 and 4, respectively,) the defensive ends alone amassed 16.5 sacks, all totaled by returning players for 2021. This number could have quickly finished near the twenties had players like Xavier Thomas and Foster been healthy all year.
Murphy was the Tigers' co-leader (4, T-Bryan Bresee) in sacks amongst defensive linemen and undoubtedly the best tackler and run defender. Power Football Focus gave Murphy a 92.5 run defense grade, the best in the country for a defensive end in just year one, and graded as the second-best tackler on the team at 89.2. The Tigers' following best returning end graded at 67.3 in tackling (Henry).
Along with a second-year Murphy, who will be a formidable double team as defensive coordinator Brent Venables has Tyler Davis and Bresee handling the middle of the trenches, Clemson returns all of their production at edge rusher and more.
One of the most exciting developments of the offseason has been Kevin Swint. He only played 35 snaps last season as a linebacker but has cross-trained at defensive end and will have a speed advantage against virtually every tackle he lines up against at a listed 230 pounds.
Regardless of how much Murphy improves or doesn't, consistency and all-time Clemson great-level production will only be indebted to the defensive ends if K.J. Henry and Xavier Thomas can prove themselves. Henry played in all twelve games but only started six as Justin Mascoll was the favorite across from Murphy (nine starts). Mascoll finished with 1.5 fewer sacks than Henry in three more games started but had four more quarterback pressures (seven) and the exact total of tackles (29).
Simply put, the depth that Swinney and Venables have returning at edge rusher alone should be terrifying.
Without a championship to their name, 2021's defensive ends will have a strenuous argument in the fight with 2016's as the best of all time. Ferrell's name alone is a heavyweight in Clemson's illustrious history of defensive ends. Assuming the chips fall correctly, though, and the Tigers avoid the injury bug at any capacity more than last season, Murphy, Mascoll, Thomas, and Henry could lead an all-time great position group.
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