After spending the past few seasons being spoiled with having the nation’s most talented defensive line, 2019 will usher in an entirely new front four.
The Power Rangers are now officially a thing of the past. Gone are Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell, and Austin Bryant. Also gone is Albert Huggins, last seasons best second string defense lineman in the country. That’s a ton of snaps and just as much production that Brent Venables must replace.
We’re talking about a front four that’s paced the country in tackles for loss and one that’s ranked right near the top in sacks over the last few seasons. Not many teams in the country could go into a season needing to replace their entire defensive line and still be considered a legit national title contender. This Clemson team is one of those few, however. This season fans will get to see that mantra “We don’t rebuild, we reload,” put to the test.
At defenseive end, there’s no shortage of elite level talent waiting in wings, all chomping at the bit to get their shot. The summer depth chart listed Xavier Thomas and Justin Foster as the two starters, and behind them were Logan Rudolph and KJ Henry.
We all saw glimpses of what XT brings to the table in 2019. Anyone needing a reminder can just click here or here. Thomas will certainly need to get better in his run defense, but that’s an improvement he should make as he heads into his second season.
Justin Foster, a junior out of Shelby NC, is primed for a breakout season of his own. The former four star recruit saw action in all 15 games, logging 180 snaps. He was credited with 17 tackles, 6 TFL, 2 sacks and a fumble recovery. Foster doesn’t get the love other guys like KJ Henry or even Logan Rudolph get at times, but this job is his to lose heading into camp.
Logan Rudolph is a redshirt sophomore who we could see a lot of on passing downs. The weight isn’t where you’d ideally want with a fulltime end, but he can be plenty effective rushing the passer. In 14 games last season he was on the field for 141 snaps, registering 13 tackles and 1 TFL. It’ll be interesting to see where he’s at weight wise come the team weigh in next week.
KJ Henry is a redshirt freshman who took advantage of the new NCAA redshirt rule last season that allows a player to appear in up to 4 games and still retain his redshirt. The fact that it was him who went to coaches and initiated those discussions is a great sign as to where he is maturity wise.
Henry is a former five star recruit and was a top 15 player overall. In 4 games last season he played 39 snaps and had 9 tackles, 2 TFL, and a fumble recovery. Henry should be a great asset in pass rushing situations, but the jury is still out as far as run defense goes. He’s another one to keep an eye on at weigh ins next week.
One other name to keep in mind is redshirt freshman Justin Mascoll. Coaches are very high on the former Top 150, 4 star recruit out of South Gwinnett High School in Georgia. He only got into one game last season and that was the Tigers blowout win over NCST. He played just eight snaps and didn’t register a tackle. Mascoll received a lot of positive reviews throughout the spring and will have plenty of opportunities to get on the field this season and make his mark.
As one can see, despite the losses the Tigers suffered at DE, there is plenty of talent waiting in the wings. Opposing quarterbacks be warned, there’s still plenty of ballers in this group.
As great as shape as the Tigers seem to be in at end, the interior seems to be one of the few questions heading into camp. Both starting DTs, Jordan Williams and Nyles Pinckney, missed the entire spring with injuries and there’s very little depth behind them. On a positive note, both those guys missing the spring meant a ton of snaps for others who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten them. The best way to get better is to get out there and play, so by the time it’s all said and done, those two injuries might be seen as blessings in disguise.
Nyles Pinckney will take over for the departed Christian Wilkins. The fifth year senior was a integral part of the rotation the last two seasons, so he’s seen plenty of action. Last season he played in all 15 games, logging 316 snaps. He had 26 tackles, 4.5 TFL, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Pinckney has been very effective in run defense to this point. We will now see if he can be a factor rushing the passer.
Jordan Williams takes over the other starting spot alongside Pinckney. The sky is the limit for Williams, now he just needs to put it all together on the field and avoid the injury bug. The redshirt sophomore saw action in 12 games last season, playing 147 snaps. He had 13 tackles, 3 TFL, 1.5 sacks, and a forced fumble. He suffered an early season injury that caused him to miss three games and he was brought back slowly after that.
Again, it’s imperative that Williams stay healthy in 2019. With so little depth, DT is one position they can not afford to suffer any injuries. Plus, Williams has started to evolve into one of the team leaders on the defensive side.
After the two starters, there’s little to no experience. True freshman Tyler Davis is penciled into one of the backup spots. After enrolling early, Davis was very impressive throughout the spring. He should evolve into a mainstay along the interior for the next few years.
The other backup spot belongs to converted DE Xavier Kelly. He’s a former Top 100 DE prospect who just hasn’t put all together yet. The staff decided to move him inside a year ago and Kelly has spent that time working on adding the needed weight required to play on the inside.
At last check he was up over the 300 pound mark, which is great news. However, at 6’4 he still needs a little more. That’s not to say he can’t play at his current weight, but with his frame you’d ideally like to see another 10-15 pounds.
Last season Kelly got into 10 games, getting his feet wet at his new position. He was on the field for just 96 snaps though and was credited with 9 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack, and 1 forced fumble. This team needs Kelly to be ready to contribute in 2019.
As everyone knows, there’s going to be a lot of new faces along the Tigers front four in 2019. This team should still be able to get after the passer. The question is, how will the run defense fare. Does it take a small step back or does it produce similar results that we’ve gotten used to seeing. Either way, as long as those tackles stay healthy, this should be another really good defense. Whether it’s top twenty caliber or top ten caliber will depend on just howe good that defensive line is.