When Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence moved on to the NFL, everyone kind of wondered who might pick up where they left off.
Wilkins, who was a unanimous All-American in 2018, was one of the more decorated players in Clemson history. Lawrence was perhaps the most powerful defensive tackle the Tigers have ever had. The All-American took on double teams, and sometimes triple teams, on a regular basis.
Both guys went on to become first-round draft picks in the 2019 NFL Draft, Wilkins went to the Dolphins with the No. 13 pick, while Lawrence was selected at No. 17 by the Giants.
Clemson knew it was going to be tough to replace Wilkins and Lawrence in the middle of its defensive front. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables and tackles coach Todd Bates planned to lean on veteran players like Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams in 2019, which they did at times.
However, it became very clear early in the year they had something in freshman Tyler Davis. The 6-foot-2, 295-pound defensive tackle started to gain comparisons to Wilkins and Lawrence in the spring and it carried over into fall camp.
In the Tigers’ Week 1 opener against Georgia Tech, Davis started the game, the first true freshman at defensive tackle to start a game since 1974. When the season was all said and done, Davis became the first freshman defensive lineman to start 13 games in a season. He played in all 15 games.
Davis earned second-team All-ACC honors after he totaled 51 tackles, including nine for loss. He also had 5.5 sacks, which ranked second on the team behind Isaiah Simmons’ eight. He added six quarterback pressures, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery.
It can be argued, after Simmons, Davis was the next best player on the Tigers’ nationally ranked defense, which finished third nationally in scoring defense and sixth in total defense.
With Davis back in the middle and the return of Pinckney and Williams, along with freshmen defensive tackles Bryan Bresee and Demonte Capehart providing depth, the middle of Clemson’s defense should be every bit as strong as it was in 2018 when Wilkins and Lawrence were terrifying offensive centers and guards.
It appears, thanks to Davis’ help, it did not take long for Clemson’s defense to be special in the middle again.
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