Notre Dame vs. Clemson - Defensive Tackle Recruiting

Brian Smith

Notre Dame vs. Clemson: Comparing Interior DL Recruiting

The Notre Dame defense took control of games during the 2018 and 2019 seasons. One of the primary reasons stemmed from good defensive tackle recruiting. Of course, those players have been coached up too. To reach the pinnacle of college football, Notre Dame must continue, and even enhance, its interior line recruiting.

Competing for titles means competing in recruiting. Clemson’s recent success can be attributed to many factors, but no question the big fellas in the middle of the defensive line did their part. To start this comparison, let's take a look at what Clemson has done with its interior defensive linemen.

Starting with the 2011 season, Clemson never won fewer than 10 games and has claimed two national championships. A combination of many categories helped to reach that incredible run. Clemson still does one basic thing as well as any program in the country: recruit and develop elite interior defensive linemen.

With the conclusion of the 2018 season, ACC programs not named Clemson rejoiced. Gone were four NFL defensive linemen from the Tigers, including three first-round draft picks and a fourth-round draft pick: Clelin Ferrell (4th overall), Christian Wilkins (13th overall), Dexter Lawrence (17th overall), and Austin Bryant (117th overall).

Clemson will now run out of really good defensive linemen, right? Hardly. The Tigers continue to be loaded. Most importantly, the interior defensive linemen do their job and make it easy for Clemson’s back seven defenders to make plays, while the explosive defensive ends often play one-on-one because opposing offensive coordinators need to double team at least one of the interior defensive linemen. It’s a big problem.

Here’s a look at key Clemson interior defensive line recruits over the past five years. Keep in mind, most of these players are still on the Clemson roster, sans Lawrence. It’s incredible.

For evaluation purposes, 247 recruiting rankings will be used. Further, recruits listed as defensive ends that ended up playing defensive tackle for either Clemson or Notre Dame will be listed below.

2016

Dexter Lawrence, 6-4, 327, Wake Forest, NC - No. 1 ranked defensive tackle and no. 2 overall player. Lawrence was the player that truly helped elevate Clemson’s defense because he was such a dominant force most teams needed to double team him. He’s the rare interior defensive lineman that can take on a double team, and still pressure the quarterback or stone a running back at the line of scrimmage. One could argue that Lawrence is the most important Clemson defensive recruit during the past five years. Lawrence became the 2019 NFL Draft’s no. 17 selection and now plays for the New York Giants.

Nyles Pinckney, 6-3, 290, Seabrook, SC (Whale Beach) - No. 34 defensive tackle and no. 327 overall player. Pinckney is now a starting interior defensive lineman for the Tigers. He’s the lone graduate player along Clemson’s three-deep at any defensive line position. Still, he’s part of a unit that rotates talented bodies into the lineup and allows a lowly 2.91 yards per carry.

That’s the more impressive statistic. Although he only added 20 tackles this season, he’s the big guy in the middle that takes up blockers so that players like linebacker and ACC Defensive Player of the Year Isaiah Simmons makes plays.

2017

Jordan Williams, 6-4, 260, Virginia Beach, VA (Frank W. Cox) - No. 167 overall player and no. 12 weak side defensive end. Williams is the true developmental player within this list. Although listed as a defensive end coming out of high school, Williams possessed the frame to play inside once he acclimated to a college weight program such as Clemson. According to Clemson’s athletic website, Williams now holds 310-pounds on his frame and plays defensive tackle. While not a starter, Williams registered 18 tackles and 2.5 sacks through the conclusion of the regular season. He will likely start for Clemson in 2020.

2018

Josh Belk, 6-3, 309, Richburg, SC (Lewisville) - No. 102 overall player and no. 7 defensive tackle. Belk enrolled early at Clemson, but then transferred to South Carolina. Belk left South Carolina less than a year after enrolling in Columbia due to a back injury and a dispute about being told to lift weights while injured.

Darnell Jeffries, 6-2, 285, Covington, GA (Newton) - No. 560 overall player and no. 42 defensive tackle. Jeffries redshirted last season, and already ascended to being no. 2 defensive tackle. Jeffries has been credited with nine tackles and one-half a sack.

2019

Tyler Davis, 6-1, 293, Apopka, FL (Wekiva) - No. 137 overall player and no. 12 defensive tackle. Davis already made a name for himself as he immediately became a starter for the Tigers. Yes, from game one against Georgia Tech, Davis started for Clemson. The true freshman already accrued 31 tackles and three sacks. Davis could be Clemson’s next star interior lineman. It’s incredible that a true freshman could swoop in and start while competing against such a talented group of defensive tackles.

Tayjuon Johnson, 6-2, 295, Williamsport, MD - No. 446 player nationally and no. 33 defensive tackle. Johnson has only played in one game so far this season, and not recorded a tackle.

2020

Bryan Bresee, 6-5, 290, Damascus, MD - No. 1 player national and no. 1 defensive tackle. Bresee should compete for immediate playing time. Possesses the talent to rush the passer despite being an interior player. Bresee will be an NFL player.

Demonte Capehart, 6-4, 295, Hartsville, SC (IMG Academy) - No. 24 player nationally and no. 2 defensive tackle. Capehart’s later quickness, despite his size, will catch one’s attention. It’s scary that he will be playing with Davis and Bresee for years to come.

Tre Williams, 6-2, 285, Washington, D.C. (St John’s College) - No. 86 player nationally and no. 7 defensive tackle. The third big-time defensive tackle recruit within the 2020 class, Williams possesses the frame to end up being the plug in the middle; the player that eats up two blocks and helps free his teammates to make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Time to Discuss the Irish

Did Notre Dame even come close to matching Clemson from the 2016 recruiting class through today? You might be surprised. Take a closer look.

2016

Zero defensive tackles signed. Do note, Notre Dame signed four defensive ends within this class – Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Jamir Jones – that played key roles the past four years. Hayes and Ogundeji could return for 2020, and most expect them to come back.

2017

Darnell Ewell, 6-4, 295, Norfolk, VA (Lake Taylor) - No. 147 nationally and no. 10 defensive tackle. Unable to make a move up the depth chart early on, moved to offensive guard, and back to defense. He is now on medical scholarship after a career-ending injury.

Myron Tagavoila-Amosa, 6-4, 270, Kapolei, HI - No. 473 player nationally and no. 18 strong-side defensive end. Quickly moved to defensive tackle and played as a true freshman. Missed most of 2018 with injury, but has been a starter for the 2019 Irish defense as a three technique. This season, Tagavoila-Amosa amassed 21 tackles and one-half a sack.

Kurt Hinish, 6-2, 283, Pittsburgh, PA (Central Catholic) - No. 520 nationally and no. 43 defensive tackle. Hinish played the one technique since enrolling at Notre Dame, and he’s the current starter. Hinish tallied 14 tackles and two sacks this season.

2018

Jayson Ademilola, 6-3, 290, Jersey City, NJ (St. Peter’s Prep) - No. 128 nationally and no. 12 defensive tackle. Ademilola played significant minutes as a freshman and raised his level of play as a sophomore. He’s the most explosive Irish interior defensive lineman. Ademilola made 24 tackles as the first interior defensive linemen off the bench, but no sacks.

Ja’Mion Franklin, 6-1, 295, Ridgley, MD (North Caroline) - No. 570 nationally and no. 44 defensive tackle. Franklin was injured as a freshman, but he’s really come on towards the end up the 2019 season. Playing in nine games with limited reps, he recorded three tackles. More importantly, he looks to be fully healed. Franklin is one to watch heading into the 2020 season.

2019

Jacob Lacey, 6-2, 285, Bowling Green, KY (South Warren) - No. 172 nationally and no. 15 defensive tackle. Lacey took advantage of a limited depth chart and earned second team nose guard status as a true freshman. Through the regular season, Lacey credited with 14 tackles and

one-half a sack. Unlike most nose guards, Lacey possesses the quickness and athleticism to not only stuff the run, but rush the passer. Lacey has a bright future in South Bend.

Hunter Spears, 6-4, 280, Sachse, TX - No. 328 nationally and no. 23 defensive tackle. Spears has overcome two leg injuries in his young career, but he’s already back in action for Notre Dame. In only three games so he could preserve a year of eligibility, Spears managed three tackles. Spears has tremendous upside and he’s one of Notre Dame’s most important young players. Much like Capehart (in Clemson’s 2020 class), Spears can push the pocket and rush the passer. Hard to find players like that.

2020

Rylie Mills, 6-5, 275, Lake Forest, IL - No. 134 nationally and no. 9 strong-side defensive end. Mills will be listed here because he’s a true swing defensive lineman; he can play five technique or three technique. Look for Mills to start out at defensive end, but he could be a valuable pass rusher as a defensive tackle. Great pickup for the Irish.

Aidan Keanaaina, 6-3, 292, Denver, CO (Mullen) - No. 392 nationally and no. 37 defensive tackle. Keanaaina projects as a prototypical nose guard based on frame and size, but he’s also agile. Unlike most one technique players, this young man can move well laterally. This is the type of player that Clemson and numerous SEC teams have placed in the middle of their defenses for decades. Through hard work and proper training, Keanaaina already reached 315-pounds while also re-shaping his body to be more explosive. He could play early. Keanaaina, without question, should be considered a major pickup for the Irish. He can make plays in the opponents’ backfield and mandate double teams.

Final Thoughts

Clemson and Notre Dame continue to recruit interior defensive linemen quite well. That stated, hard to ignore Clemson’s current interior defensive line recruiting class. It borders on unfair, and gives the Tigers the edge over the Irish. Clemson built their defense, however, with many three-star recruits.

Clemson’s coaching and development allowed really good athletes to become really good football players. Notre Dame, under the direction of defensive coordinator Clark Lea, really turned the corner last season. A big reason was the interior defensive line. 2019 proved to be more of the same as the defensive linemen played well for most of the season, but obviously missed now first round draft pick and current Los Angeles Charger Jerry Tillery. Overall, both teams made it miserable for opposing teams to pass the football.

Key statistic: Notre Dame allowed only 163.7 yards passing this season, ranking the Irish no. 3 nationally. Only Clemson and Ohio State allowed fewer passing yards per game.

The Tigers and Irish utilized talent across the board, including interior defensive linemen that get after the quarterback and require double teams. Notre Dame continues to elevate its interior defensive line talent and that will aid the defensive ends even more. While Clemson should still be considered the gold standard for interior defensive line recruiting, Notre Dame would be one of four or five programs closest to the Tigers.

To reach the top of the mountain, Notre Dame either needs to develop one of the current recruits or players into that elite defensive tackle, or sign that true monster in the middle like Clemson did with Lawrence. That’s all that separates the two programs along the interior defensive line.

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Comments (2)
No. 1-1
thomasna33
thomasna33

You forgot Howard Cross III but otherwise good stuff.

The difference for me is Clemson's guys are more athletic and just bigger than ND's. Jordan Williams and the 2020 recruiting class is next level athletic. Add in that those guys are or will be 300lbs and the difference really begins to show. ND has done a great job though. I think we need a few more Aidan Keanaaina types at the 1 tech.


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