Xavier Thomas will be the first one to tell you he wasn’t in a good place this time a year ago. It wasn’t hard for his teammates to notice it either.
“I remember he wasn’t all the way into it,” Clemson cornerback Andrew Booth said.
Those same teammates will now be the first to say it’s hard to tell that was ever the case.
“He’s just a freak, and you can tell a big difference just in how he’s playing right now,” safety Nolan Turner said. “He’s just dominant. I was watching (the tape), and I think they were backed up inside their own 5-yard line on one of those third-and-longs, and their left tackle had no chance. He just blows right by him getting off the ball.”
The film Turner was referring to was Clemson’s win over Boston College last week, a continuation of Thomas’ transformative start to this season. After getting flagged for roughing the passer against Boston College quarterback Dennis Grosel early in the second quarter, Thomas displayed his rediscovered quickness. Alec Sinkfield took the handoff from Grosel three plays later, but Thomas seemingly beat the Eagles’ entire offensive line off the ball and crashed down to drop Sinkfield for a 2-yard loss.
It set the tone for another productive performance for Thomas, who has looked more like the all-ACC performer he was earlier in his career. He finished with three tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack to add to many of his team-leading totals in those departments. His 3.5 sacks and eight quarterback pressures are tops on the team, and only fellow defensive end Myles Murphy has more tackles for loss than Thomas (4.5) through the first five games.
“Just playing free, playing with a lot of knowledge of the game and just doing what I do really,” Thomas said.
There was a time, though, when Thomas didn’t know if he’d be playing at all this season.
Last season was Thomas’ third in the program after signing with Clemson as a consensus top-5 prospect nationally in the 2018 recruiting cycle. After following a freshman All-America season with third-team all-ACC honors as a sophomore, Thomas envisioned having his most productive season yet in Year 3 and then bolting for the NFL. But last season didn’t come close to going as planned.
Thomas came down with COVID-19 before it started, and he also dealt with a bout of strep throat. Complications from both affected his on-field performance to the point that Thomas initially decided to alter that three-year plan. He was only going to play four games and maintain the year of eligibility under the NCAA’s redshirt rule, but that didn’t matter once college sports’ governing body granted all fall-sport athletes a free year of eligibility in response to the pandemic.
But a concussion that caused him to miss multiple games only added to Thomas’ frustration. He played in just seven of the Tigers’ 12 games, finishing the season with just 11 tackles and 3.5 sacks over 119 snaps. It was nowhere close to the level of production a player with next-level aspirations is used to, which sent Thomas to a dark place mentally.
Thomas’ disappointment turned into depression. He admitted he lost focus and purpose, and he put on 30 pounds to balloon to more than 290 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame.
“Just reading a lot of negative things that were said about me online,” Thomas said. “I was really just worried about the wrong things in life. Just wasn’t focused at all and feeling sorry for myself.”
It got to a point during the offseason that Thomas nearly walked away from the team.
“I had contacted (Clemson coach Dabo Swinney) over the phone before camp and was really just going to give up and just do it,” he said.
But Thomas said Swinney and his staff came up with a plan to morph him back into the elite edge defender he once was. It included shedding that excess weight, something Thomas also credits his teammates for helping keep him motivated to do. But he had his own motivations, too.
“Really it was just seeing myself, being disappointed looking in the mirror every day and just seeing my old self and seeing where I was then,” Thomas said. “And then also seeing a lot of guys I came up with. My plans were to have a great third year and then go to the draft. And seeing those guys get drafted just really motivated me because that’s where I’d planned to be, and I didn’t get there.
“God had a different path for me. I really just wanted to get back where I wanted to be and get my weight to where I wanted to be so I could really just do what I do.”
Thomas said he started working out twice a day starting in January to get himself back in shape. By the start of fall camp in August, Thomas had lost those 30 pounds and regained his explosive first step, which again showed up against Boston College — and not always on the stat sheet.
“I thought Xavier Thomas was the best player on the field (Saturday),” Swinney said. “His presence was unbelievable. He was a problem.”
His teammates have noticed that, too.
“I know he was down bad, but how he is now, it’s great to see,” Booth said. “He’s a pivotal point to our defense with how he pass rushes. It’s insane if you watch him coming off that edge. He shouldn’t be moving that fast being that big.”
Said Turner, “It’s been fun to watch his transformation. It’s inspiring, too. He’s playing some good football right now.”
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!