When Xavier Thomas got on campus earlier this year, Clelin Ferrell was impressed with how the freshman carried himself.
“I saw a freshman who came in and didn’t feel like anything was owed to him,” Clemson’s defensive end said.
Instead, Thomas, the No. 3 overall player in the country coming out of high school, went to work. He knew guys like Ferrell and Austin Bryant were in front of him on the depth chart. They were both All-Americans and decided to return to Clemson for one more year, joining defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence to form arguably the best defensive front in the country.
For Thomas, the opportunity to start was going to be difficult. But that did not slow him down.
“I felt like he wanted to work for everything he’s achieved and accomplished,” Ferrell said. “His progression throughout the season is really good to see. Just a guy who is a humble kid, a hard worker, and isn’t entitled even with all of the accolades he came in with.”
Though he did not start, Thomas made his presence known to just about everyone. He’d fly down field to make tackles on punt and kickoff returns. He sacked the quarterback and slammed ball carriers to the ground whenever he got the opportunity.
“I would say that obviously his natural given ability, just his intensity is something that gives him an opportunity to come in and play,” Ferrell said.
Thomas enters the Tigers’ Cotton Bowl matchup against Notre Dame with 30 tackles, including 9.5 behind the line of scrimmage. Of those 9.5 tackles for loss, three are sacks. He also knocked down two passes and forced a fumble.
“He still has a lot to develop,” Ferrell said. “Obviously, a lot of things with playing at this level, like the physicality, that takes time to develop, but I would say he came in ready to take on those things with the right mindset and attitude.
“He was ready to embrace that challenge that comes with being a freshman and playing at the game speed this one plays at.”
With Ferrell expected to turn pro once the season is complete, along with Lawrence, while Bryant and Wilkins have exhausted their eligibility, Thomas will be counted on to be one of the starters next year.
Ferrell expects the 6-foot-2, 260-pound freshman to be ready to start if he is needed.
“I mean it’s all on him,” the senior said. “Anybody, depending on whoever is going to be here next year, whether I stay, Dex stays, obviously Austin and Christian have no choice. But, all of those guys, K.J. (Henry) X, Logan (Rudolph), Justin (Mascoll), Justin (Foster) all have a chance to come in and help lead this group because obviously they’re another year better.
“I told them at this point in the season they’re not freshman anymore, they’re sophomores. Most of them won’t get a chance to play this late in the season so it’s a different mindset they have to have in their development. They can’t be thinking like freshman anymore. It’s the next level of play they have to take their game to. I think they can do it for sure. It’s all on them. We’ll put them in the right position to make plays and to lead guys. They just have to want it.”