Before the first day of spring practice, Dabo Swinney looked at his depth chart at defensive tackle and saw Tyler Davis listed with the first team.
“I was like, ‘We can’t run that guy out there first. He just got here,” Swinney recalled. “‘Surely, we have somebody on this team that can run out there first.’ But that is where we are. It was a little ugly early, but I thought we finished well.”
Davis ended up having a great spring. The post-season injuries that forced defensive tackles Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams to miss all of spring practice turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it forced true freshmen like Davis, Etinosa Reuben and Ruke Orhorhoro to get a lot of reps in the spring, reps they more than likely would not have received had Pinckney and Williams been able to practice.
By the end of the spring, Swinney felt his defensive line, which has to replace all four starters, was much improved from the first day of practice.
“I thought they held their own. It was not sloppy. The guys have improved,” Clemson’s head coach said.
Because of Pinckney and Williams both being out, plus the losses of Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Albert Huggins, Swinney felt as if defensive tackles coach Todd Bates had just a little bit more a challenge in the spring than defensive ends coach Lemanski Hall, though Hall had to replace Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant at defensive end.
“Todd has a huge job. Lemanski has a little bit more (coming back),” Swinney said. “Xavier (Thomas) has played. He is a freaky athletic guy. Justin Foster sneakily had a great year last year. Kind of an under-the-radar guy, but he had a really good year for us backing up Cle and Austin. He is a junior.
“Logan Rudolph is a redshirt sophomore, so he has been around, and he showed up. K.J. (Henry) got to play in four games last year and got some good experience. So, Lemanski has a little bit more veterans to work with.”
Swinney feels with the emergence of Henry and Justin Mascoll this spring, the Tigers developed an identity and leadership at the defensive end position. However, at defensive tackle, they are dealing with a lot of guys that have not played, which is why the reps they got in the spring were huge in developing the quality of depth up the middle of the defense.
“I am really encouraged by Tyler and Ruke and ET and Darnell Jefferies and Xavier (Kelly),” Swinney said. “All of those guys got better. We have a lot of work to do. Each one of them brings different things, but I am very encouraged by what took place this spring.”