There's no avoiding great expectations for Clemson's deep, talented defensive line

There's no avoiding great expectations for Clemson's deep, talented defensive line

Football

There's no avoiding great expectations for Clemson's deep, talented defensive line

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Lemanski Hall wasn’t about to put the cart before the horse.

Asked during the football program’s local media day how long into the season he thought it would take for Clemson’s defensive line to be able to call itself Power Rangers 2.0, the Tigers’ defensive ends coach didn’t do much more than chuckle at the inquiry.

“They’ve got to get permission from those guys first to be able to do that,” Hall said.

Of course, the Power Rangers is an affectionate reference to one of the best defensive fronts to ever don the purple and orange. Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Austin Bryant wreaked havoc on opposing offenses during Clemson’s most recent national championship run in 2018. Headliners of a defense that finished top 5 nationally in points and yards allowed that season, all of them were drafted the following year, three of them within the first 17 picks.

But one thing this year’s group is embracing are the lofty expectations that have come with as much raw talent and perhaps even more depth up front than Clemson had three years ago. The combination of the two may be the best it’s been for the Tigers since, which has made comparisons between this version of Clemson’s defensive line and that one inevitable.

“We hear it often,” Hall said. “To me, the focus is there’s a high expectation with that group, and we’ve got to live up to that expectation. You can’t try to go out and do something you’re not comfortable doing. We’ve got to focus in on the little things and be who we are.”

Just how deep is Clemson up front heading into the new season? Not only are the Tigers returning all four starting linemen in coordinator Brent Venable’s defense, but Clemson has seven linemen that have started at least one game.

The majority of that depth is on the edges, where Clemson has starting-caliber defensive ends littered on its three-deep heading into fall camp. The Tigers got a boost there with Justin Foster’s decision to return for another season after he initially announced his retirement from football once he missed all of last season with a bout of COVID-19, bringing back with him 39 games worth of experience.

“I was leaping for joy because I know the type of young man this guy is,” said Todd Bates, who’s entering his fifth season coaching the Tigers’ interior defensive linemen. “He’s a rock-solid guy who’s going to be where he’s supposed to be and doing what he’s supposed to do. … We’re thrilled to have him back.”

Foster, an all-ACC honorable mention in 2019, and former five-star signee Myles Murphy are listed at the top of the depth chart for now, but Clemson has the “or” designation peppered throughout that position, a good indication of how the coaching staff feels about the caliber of players it has there. Xavier Thomas brings nine career sacks into his senior season, the most of anybody on the Tigers’ roster, while junior K.J. Henry is also back in the fold.

So is Justin Mascoll, who took advantage of some of the attrition at the position last season by posting 29 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss in the first nine starts of his career. Hall mentioned the 6-foot-3, 255-pound junior as someone he expects to take a major step in his development as he works to become a more complete edge defender.

“I see Justin Mascoll just really taking off and having an awesome year doing the little things right,” Hall said. “I’m excited to see his progression as well.

“I don’t want to categorize him and put him as he’s just a run defender. He can rush the passer as well, but that’s where we’ve got to get better is in the pass rush with him. But physicality, man, just coming out of his hips on contact, that’s what you want. He does it better than anyone. Just need to get more consistent.”

Of course, the Tigers are counting on a natural step forward from youngsters like Murphy and defensive tackle Ben Bresee, who were among the most productive freshmen linemen in the country last season. Bresee, the nation’s No. 1 prospect in the 2020 recruiting cycle, returns to anchor the interior of the line along with junior Tyler Davis, who started all seven games he played last season and has started 20 of the 22 he’s played in his career.

Murphy had a team-high 12 tackles for loss last season while Bresee was just as disruptive on the inside en route to ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Bresee flashed his quick-twitch playmaking ability by recording 6.5 tackles for loss. Four of those were sacks, which tied him for second-most on the team.

“You can’t have a much better year than he had as a freshman, but he has really been working hard and had a great spring,” Bates said of Bresee. “Really starting to take it to another level. That’s what we’ve challenged him on is to max out his abilities and to get better in the run game and not just focus on pass rush.”

With Bresee and Davis entrenched as Clemson’s top two interior linemen heading into camp, the stiffest competition will be for the third spot on the depth chart there. Ruke Orhorhoro, Tre Williams, Darnell Jeffries and Etinosa Reuben are just some of the interior linemen that have been in the program for at least a year, and true freshman Payton Page has worked himself into good enough shape to where he could potentially be a contributor this season.

Page, a mid-year enrollee, arrived on campus around 380 pounds. Since then, he’s lost more than 40 pounds, Bates said.

“It could be a number of guys,” Bates said, referencing the candidates to be the third defensive tackle. “We’re looking forward to camp. It’ll sort itself out.”

Clemson added two more blue-chip pieces to the mix in edge signees Cade Denhoff and Zaire Patterson, so the Tigers have no shortage of options up and down their defensive front. But the unit isn’t exactly overconfident heading into a new season.

The group took some lumps last season and ended it with a dud in Clemson’s 49-28 loss to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinals, allowing the Buckeyes to rack up a whopping 639 yards with more than 250 of those coming on the ground.

Bates said that performance served as a piece of humble pie that’s left a sour taste in the mouth of the collective group all offseason.

“Humble pie is the best kind of pie,” Bates said. “Sometimes you’ve got to get that chip back on your shoulder. Regardless of who tells you you’re great, you’ve got to come hungry every day, come humble every day to go out and work hard.”

As productive as some of the Tigers’ newcomers were up front last season, it was still baptism by fire for those going through their first season of college football. Bates said the biggest difference between last year and now is maturity for the unit as a whole. Everyone in line to be a significant contributor up front has experience and knows what to expect this time around.

And for a unit that, at least on paper, has the look of one of the nation’s best, expectations are about as high as they’ve ever been.

“We do have the luxury of some guys that have played a lot of football,” Hall said. “Now it’s just a matter of let’s utilize the depth that we have and get guys to play fast, play free and don’t think. Go out, execute and be productive.”

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