After earning near-unanimous freshman All-America recognition as a reserve last season, Xavier Thomas might seem like a shoo-in for one of Clemson’s starting defensive end spots in 2019 now that its Power Rangers are gone.
However, head coach Dabo Swinney said after Monday’s practice there is no separation between the handful of D-ends vying for a starting role, adding that the situation likely won’t change until the season starts.
It’s a wide-open competition in fall camp, and Thomas knows nothing will be given to him just because of the success he had in 2018.
“Basically, as every other guy, we’re not entitled to anything,” he said Monday. “I’m not entitled to a starting position. I’ve got to come out here and grind and put my best foot forward every day. You can’t take any days off. It’s camp – it’s supposed to be hard. So, we’re just coming out here training every day.”
According to Thomas, the first-team reps have been divided up in practice. Guys like Logan Rudolph, Justin Foster, K.J. Henry, Justin Mascoll and Thomas are all getting a chance to show what they can do.
“It’s been mixed up,” Thomas said. “We’ve been rotating all camp. Everybody has been, so they can get that different look and everybody can see how he’s doing with the ones, how he’s doing with the twos. So, everybody’s been rotating, and we have a pretty solid five-guy rotation right now.”
As a freshman, Thomas tallied 43 tackles (10.5 for loss), 3.5 sacks and two pass breakups in 304 snaps across 15 games, earning first-team freshman All-America honors by USA Today, ESPN.com, The Athletic and 247Sports.
Heading into this season, one of the primary focuses for the 6-foot-2, 268-pounder is improving as a run defender.
“I’ve been very focused on improving my strength and improving my run game on first and second down, and of course working on my pass rush,” he said. “But I’ve mainly been focusing on run-stopping.”
Meanwhile, Thomas is trying to step up and fill part of the leadership void left by Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, all of whom are now toiling in the NFL.
“My biggest challenge, I guess, is stepping into that new leadership role,” Thomas said. “Of course, playing behind them other D-ends last year, stepping into this role has been very challenging. But I mean it’s very good for me. It’s growing me mentally and physically every day.”
For those that predict there will be a drop-off from Clemson’s D-line this season with the big four gone, Thomas has a simple response.
“We love to hear that. That motivates us,” he said. “We’re just going to keep blocking that out and just keep grinding every day.”