Could this year’s defensive line be better or as good as the Tigers’ were in 2018?
It is a good question and, when examined a little closer, it appears plausible.
If you recall, the 2018 Clemson defensive line was solidified in January of that year following the Tigers’ Sugar Bowl loss to Alabama. Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, who were all expect to dash off to the NFL, stunned everyone when they decided to return to school for one more year.
The end result, the Tigers went 15-0 and won its second national championship in three years at the time.
Prior to the 2020 season, it seemed like a forgone conclusion that this year would be Xavier Thomas’ last season at Clemson, and likely Justin Foster’s as well. Both guys were productive as starters in 2019 and many expected them both to be All-ACC and possibly All-American candidates in 2020.
But those expectations never got off the ground. For undisclosed reasons, Foster did not play a down in 2020, while Thomas missed five games, including the ACC Championship Game and the Sugar Bowl.
Thomas missed all of his summer workouts, preseason camp and the first three games of the season due to complications from contracting the coronavirus and strep throat in the off-season. He eventually got back on the field and played in five games.
He played just 119 snaps but was very productive when he was on the field. Thomas recorded four tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and forced one fumble in his short playing time. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said Thomas missed the ACC Championship Game and the Sugar Bowl due to protocols, though he did not say what protocols they were.
But none of that matters now. Thomas is coming back to Clemson for one more season and so is Foster, who had 10.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including 4.5 sacks in 2019.
Fun fact, how similar was Clemson’s defensive outputs in 2017 with Wilkins, Ferrell, Bryant and Dexter Lawrence, to this past season’s defensive front with Bryan Bresee, Myles Murphy, Tyler Davis and a host of other contributors? The answer, very similar.
In 2017, Clemson tied for the national lead in sacks with 46. They also had 109 tackles for loss, which ranked sixth nationally.
The 2020 Tigers’ also tied for the national lead in sacks with 46 and ranked second in the nation with 109 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Clemson is loaded with returning talent across its defensive front. Besides Thomas, Foster, Bresee, Davis and Murphy, the Tigers also have K.J. Henry and Justin Mascoll back, two defensive ends who started a lot of games this past season as well. Redshirt freshman Greg Williams, who played in seven games, is also back at defensive end to help provide depth.
Then there is DeMonte Capehart, Tre Williams, Darnell Jefferies, Etinosa Reuben and Ruke Orhorhoro providing depth at the defensive tackle positions.
As you can see, the 2021 defensive line is deep and extremely talented. Even with all the injuries it suffered through in 2020, with Davis, Thomas and Foster all missing significant playing time, they still helped Clemson lead the nation in sacks and was second in tackles for loss. They also put up the same numbers the 2017 defense did and did it in two less games.
Can Clemson’s 2021 defensive front be just as productive as the 2018 line? I think they have a real good chance to do it.