Remember how concerned everyone was about the defensive end position this time last year?
Clemson had just lost juniors Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd to the NFL Draft, and the most experienced guy at the position coming back was Austin Bryant, who registered just 219 snaps in 2015, while playing in 13 games.
Those concerns grew even more in fall camp when Bryant broke a small bone in his foot that caused him to miss the first six games of the season. At the time, the Tigers had to move defensive tackle Christian Wilkins outside after he crossed trained at the defensive end position for a little while in the spring.
As we know, everything ended up working out. Wilkins became a First-Team All-American at the position, while Clelin Ferrell, a redshirt freshman, became one of the ACC’s breakout stars in his first season.
Bryant returned by the NC State game, and by season’s end he was back to being what the coaches thought he was going to be before his injury.
So what was once a weakness on Clemson’s defense is now a strength in numbers and in talent as the Tigers get set to begin spring practice on March 1. Wilkins, Ferrell and Bryant return as does Chris Register and Richard Yeargin. Xavier Kelly, who redshirted in the fall, is also expected to challenge for playing time and will add to the Tigers depth.
Christian Wilkins: There is no word on if Wilkins will play inside or outside for the Tigers, but we do know this much, he can play either and can be very productive at both. Wilkins (6-4, 315) was a First-Team All-American as a defensive end as he tied Watkins for the team lead with 13.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, while also recording 3.5 sacks. He had 20 quarterback pressures and deflected a team-high 10 passes at the line of scrimmage.
Clelin Ferrell: The redshirt sophomore finished the season with 50 tackles, including 12.5 tackles for loss. Of those 12.5, six were sacks. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound defensive end came up big in big games. He recorded two sacks against Louisville and two against Florida State, while recording six tackles and two sacks against Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game and then matching that with six tackles, including a career-high three sacks in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. He also had a tackle for loss before being injured in the national championship game against Alabama.
Austin Bryant: With Ferrell injured, Bryant (6-4, 265) played a season-high 39 snaps against Alabama. Though he did not record a tackle, he did provide pressure several times and helped force incompletions. By the end of the season, Bryant was back in football shape and was playing more like he did the year before in the Orange Bowl when he had a career-high nine tackles after Lawson went down with an injury. He had three tackles in just 22 snaps against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Bryant finished the season with 16 tackles, three tackles behind the line and two sacks. He also broke up one pass and had three quarterback pressures. With Bryant back in the mix, it now gives Clemson the flexibility to use Wilkins inside a little more if they want to.
Richard Yeargin: The redshirt junior will provide the Tigers with more depth this year. Yeargin (6-3, 255) played in 12 games last season, while registering 14 tackles in 189 snaps. He had four tackles for loss and a half sack and three quarterback pressures. The coaches will like to see Yeargin get bigger and stronger in the off-season.
Chris Register: The redshirt junior had just nine tackles and 1.5 sacks, while playing in 11 games. A former linebacker, the coaching staff is still confident Register (6-2, 245) can progress as an edge rusher. Like Yeargin, they would like to see him put on a little more weight and muscle mass as he continues to progress.
Xavier Kelly: The coaching staff compared Kelly (6-5, 255) a lot to Ferrell last summer, saying he was both physically and mentally ready to play. The two are built very similar and are very athletic. Kelly was having a good fall camp, and there was conversation of playing him in 2016, until he hit a wall late in camp, which was due in large part to a minor head injury he suffered in a moped accident during camp. The accident set him back, and ultimately, the coaching staff decided to redshirt him so he could get healthy, learn a little more and be ready to be a contributor this coming season.
LaSamuel Davis: Though he was too small to compete during the season, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and Brent Venables bragged about Davis’ motor in preseason camp. Davis, who was 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds last summer, redshirted so he could get bigger and stronger. He still has a ways to go to get to where the coaching staff wants him to be physically, but they like his speed coming off the edge and they think he can be a guy that can help them on third down and obvious passing situations.
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