Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney feels good about the group of defensive linemen that will take the field for his team Thursday night when the top-ranked Tigers open the season against Georgia Tech at Death Valley.
Swinney and his staff have plenty of talent to work with up front, though the defensive line is young and there is not a lot of experience to speak of. So, Swinney knows there will likely be some growing pains early in the season.
“We’ve just got to go play,” Swinney said Monday during his press conference previewing the Georgia Tech game. “It’s like we’re changing a lot of diapers. When babies are born, they don’t just know how to go to the bathroom. They don’t know how to walk — they crawl… We’ve got to kind of help them along, and then they’ll figure it out. Eventually they’ll be potty-trained and they can walk. Some walk sooner than others.
“So, I think we’ve got a talented group, we’ve just got to go play and figure it out from there.”
At defensive end, sophomore Xavier Thomas (304 snaps in 2018) and junior Justin Foster (264 career snaps) are Clemson’s most experienced players.
“Xavier Thomas, that guy is a special talent,” Swinney said. “But he’s got to be a day-in, down-in, down-out special player, not just a special talent. He’s really made a ton of progress in camp. Justin Foster, he’s just an old salty dog. He’s just steady. You can count on him. He’s tough.”
Aside from Thomas and Foster, the Tigers will also rely heavily on guys like redshirt sophomore Logan Rudolph (163 career snaps) and redshirt freshmen K.J. Henry and Justin Mascoll to contribute at D-end.
“I think we’ve got an excellent group,” Swinney said. “Those five guys are kind of where it starts at D-end for us. All of them are going to play. Will somebody separate as we get into the game? I don’t know. I think they could all really be factors for us.”
Meanwhile, at defensive tackle, redshirt junior Nyles Pinckney, redshirt sophomore Jordan Williams and blue-chip true freshman Tyler Davis have stood out according to Swinney.
Swinney mentioned redshirt junior Xavier Kelly, redshirt freshman Darnell Jefferies and true freshman Ruke Orhorhoro as other D-tackles he expects to be in the mix this fall.
“Right now, Nyles and Jordan and Tyler have kind of separated,” Swinney said. “Those three guys have created some separation and done a great job. Really feel good about those three. That’s pretty impressive for a guy like Tyler Davis. He’s been here since January, and he’s one of those guys that’s just kind of gotten it. He’s to the point now where we’re kind of throwing him in there with Nyles and Jordan. All three of those guys are guys that I think are ready to go play.”
There are some unknowns with Clemson’s defensive line heading into the season, but Swinney is excited to see where the unit is when the season gets underway in three days.
“We’re going to play a bunch of guys,” he said. “To be quite honest with you, we’ve got a couple spots I don’t even know who’s going to run out there first.
“I do know this – we’re going to play a lot of guys. We’ve got a bunch of guys that I think are just like a big ole pack. They’re all doing great. I love those guys, and they all bring something to the table.”
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