With Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Albert Huggins having moved on to the NFL, one of the biggest challenges for Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and his staff entering fall camp was trying to create functional depth at the defensive tackle position.
Now, with camp winding down and the season-opener against Georgia Tech just 10 days away, Swinney is happy with the progress the Tigers have made on the interior D-line.
“We’ve created some depth there, which is good,” Swinney said following Monday’s practice at Jervey Meadows. “That was one of our biggest things coming into it, was could we create some functional depth? We’re talented. But making that talent functional was a big challenge for us, and I think we’ve been able to do that. I feel great.”
When camp began in early August, Swinney was interested to see how Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams – Clemson’s projected starters at D-tackle – would look after missing all of spring practice due to injuries.
“The biggest thing was just where were they going to be physically and what was their confidence going to be like and all that type of stuff,” Swinney said. “Just were they ready to go cut it loose because they hadn’t played football since early January. But they’ve done good.”
Pinckney is preparing for his fourth year with the Tigers. The Beaufort, S.C., native redshirted the 2016 season before serving as a rotational player the past two seasons, recording 44 tackles (6.5 for loss), one sack, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery in 490 snaps over 29 career games.
“Nyles has been excellent,” Swinney said. “Nyles has been really good. He’s a fourth-year guy — he looks that way. He just carries himself that way and has played some good football for us. His knowledge, his understanding of block recognition, protection recognition – the little things that just comes with experience and knowledge. He’s really done a good job, and he applies that.”
Williams, meanwhile, was hampered by an injury in 2018 and only played 147 snaps across 12 games as a redshirt freshman. However, the former four-star prospect from Virginia Beach, Va., is as gifted as any defensive tackle the Tigers have according to Swinney.
“Jordan, he might be the most talented guy,” he said. “But right now, he’s not the best player yet. But he’s going to be a sophomore. He didn’t get to play as a freshman, and then last year showed some things and got a little bit of experience. But he’s still a work in progress. He’s still figuring it out.”
While Williams still has plenty of work to do, Swinney believes he is primed for a breakout 2019 season.
“I think he’s set up to have an excellent year,” Swinney said. “I think he’s going to get better and better. He just needs to play. He needs some experience. There’s a lot of things consistency wise and just technique, fundamental wise that he’s still got to grow into. But tool wise and ability wise, he’s got it all. But he’s still a work in progress. Again, he’s a guy that’s going into his second season to play, so I think he’s going to make some big strides throughout the season.”
Throw in guys like true freshman Tyler Davis, redshirt freshman Darnell Jefferies and redshirt junior Xavier Kelly, and Swinney is pleased with the personnel he has at his disposal at D-tackle.
“I think Tyler Davis, he’s as good as we got,” Swinney said. “He is really advanced and a guy that has really earned our trust in any situation. Darnell Jefferies, Xavier Kelly, those guys have really made some very good strides for us. So, I’m very encouraged by the first four of five guys that we’ve got. The reps may not be even, but the depth has become good.”
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