To hear Clemson’s coaches tell it, Justin Foster is looking a lot like his old self.
“He looks great,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “He’s doing everything.”
It’s been a long road back for Foster, who initially didn’t plan on playing football this fall. The Tigers’ veteran defensive end walked away from the game at the start of the offseason after dealing with a bout of COVID-19.
His retirement, though, turned out to be a brief leave of absence.
Foster reconsidered that decision in the spring. By May, he was on the phone with Swinney asking if he could rejoin the team. Swinney answered in the affirmative, and Foster returned this summer.
Complications from contracting the novel coronavirus often left Foster feeling weak and ultimately forced him to miss all of the 2020 season. But, by all accounts, Foster has regained the strength and endurance that helped make him an all-ACC honorable mention selection in 2019.
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables said Foster set personal bests during summer weightlifting sessions and also met all his required running times. Foster has taken part in every practice during fall camp other than the first one, and that was only because he had a medical appointment scheduled for the same time.
“He’s been training for a long time,” Venables said.
Still, it’s been a while since the 6-foot-2, 275-pounder has played in a football game. It was Clemson’s 42-25 loss to LSU in the national championship game 19 months ago, to be exact, so the Tigers aren’t going to ask Foster to play 50 snaps a game right off the bat, as Swinney put it.
Given the depth Clemson has at Foster’s position, the Tigers don’t exactly need him to either.
It’s some of the best in the country with senior Xavier Thomas, juniors K.J. Henry and Justin Mascoll and Myles Murphy, a freshman All-American last season, all still in the fold. Each of them has started at least one game. Throw in another senior, Regan Upshaw, as well as rising sophomore Kevin Swint and true freshmen Cade Denhoff and Zaire Patterson, and Clemson has an embarrassment of riches it can rotate in order to keep all of its edge defenders fresh.
“We’ll probably keep (Foster) on a little bit of a pitch count, but it’s kind of easy to do that when you’ve got five guys that have started there at that position,” Swinney said. “And then you’ve got Swint. So we’re in a good spot there.”
Foster appeared in 39 career games with 13 starts in his his first three years in the program. All of those starts came two seasons ago when he tallied 41 tackles and 4.5 sacks.
The Tigers have been doing plenty of rotating along the defensive line early in camp, though Foster hasn’t been getting many first-team reps, at least not during periods open to the media for viewing. But Clemson still plans to utilize his experience and skill set whenever it sees fit.
“He’s so heavy handed. So physical,” Venables said. “Just does all the little things right for you, which is how you win.”