Coming out of spring practice back in March, Clemson defensive end Xavier Thomas was in a good spot as a player preparing for his third season with the Tigers.
After garnering near unanimous freshman All-American acclaim in 2018 and following it up by earning third-team All-ACC honors in 2019, Thomas performed well in spring ball and felt poised for what he hoped would be a big-time junior campaign this fall.
But then, while back home in Florence, S.C., in late March or early April, Thomas contracted the coronavirus. It hit him hard and he suffered multiple symptoms, including a high fever, breathing issues, chest tightness and overall physical weakness.
COVID-19 was a major setback for Thomas, who had a difficult time getting over it. He recently told the media that it took him about five months to feel truly recovered from the effects of the virus, and the Tigers were about two games into the season before the effects had fully gone away.
“It was very frustrating, but I had a lot of support behind me. They helped me stick through it and kept me positive,” Thomas said. “It was a really big year coming in and I was at a really good point after spring ball, and then everything just got sent back and everything fell down on me.
“It was real tough, but I had a lot of support behind me and I just stayed positive.”
Thomas did get well enough to return to Clemson this past summer and was able to start training with his teammates again. However, he developed strep throat and it set him back in his recovery.
These days, Thomas is feeling much better and said at the beginning of this month that he was about halfway back to where he wants to be, but nowhere near where he can be. He said he weighed around 270 pounds and wanted to get his playing weight down to around 255 to 260 pounds.
After missing the first three games of the season, Thomas played three snaps in his season debut against Miami on Oct. 10. The former five-star prospect then played 20 snaps at Georgia Tech the following week, recording three tackles including half a tackle for loss, before adding three tackles including his first sack of the season in 25 snaps vs. Syracuse a week later. He registered another sack against Boston College on Oct. 31, giving him a full sack in back-to-back games for the first time in his career, but was ejected in the second half for targeting and forced to sit out the first half of the Notre Dame game two weeks ago.
At the beginning of fall camp, when Thomas was still working his way back from COVID-19 and step throat, the plan for the Tigers was to redshirt him and try to build his strength back up by the end of the season so he could see action in the four games which players are allowed to play in without burning their redshirt year.
However, because of the NCAA’s decision to give all fall sport athletes an extra year of eligibility, even if they compete this season, Clemson didn’t have to worry about limiting Thomas to only four games.
And now, with Thomas having made a lot of progress since being set back by the illnesses, head coach Dabo Swinney and the Tigers are hoping to see Thomas in top form on the field as they head down the stretch of the season.
“He’s gotten better,” Swinney said this week. “Originally, he wasn’t going to come back and play until the last few games. So, technically, he wouldn’t even be playing right now if the rules hadn’t changed, because he was going to try to play in the four games toward the end and save a year, try to redshirt.
“But obviously the rules changed, so it allowed him to get back out there doing some football stuff maybe a little early before he was fully ready. So, he’s been kind of just working himself back that direction, and he certainly has made some improvement. And then he had to miss the first half of the Notre Dame game. So, hopefully he’s going to be the best version of himself this year toward the end here.”
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