Will Clemson’s defensive line be whole again against Wake Forest?

Will Clemson’s defensive line be whole again against Wake Forest?

Football

Will Clemson’s defensive line be whole again against Wake Forest?

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Clemson’s defense hasn’t looked like the dominant force many expected to see coming into the season, particularly considering the level of competition the Tigers have faced through three games.

Clemson also hasn’t played any of those games at full strength up front.

Will that change in time for what will easily be the Tigers’ stiffest test of the season Saturday when they travel to take on No. 21 Wake Forest in an early Atlantic Division showdown? 

The answer is still to be determined, though Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said his team is in a “much better place” from an injury standpoint going into the weekend. The Tigers’ defensive line, widely viewed as arguably the best in college football leading up to the season, has been hit with its share of attrition already.

The patchwork group held its own against FCS foe Furman and, most recently, Louisiana Tech. The Tigers still rank in the top 12 nationally in rush defense and tackles for loss but have just five sacks so far. That ranks in the bottom half of the FBS.

Defensive end K.J. Henry, who’s starting in the place of the injured Xavier Thomas for the time being, said the line is capable of taking its game to another level when intact.

“The sky is the limit for when everybody is healthy,” Henry said. “Now that being said, the game we play, I don’t know if we’ll get everybody healthy, especially not 100%. Ain’t nobody going to be 100%. But as we start to get guys matriculating back in, we’re just going to keep getting better and better.”

The good news for the group is star defensive tackle Bryan Bresee is expected to return to the lineup Saturday after missing the Louisiana Tech game following the recent passing of his sister. But Clemson played last week without two other starters up front in Thomas (foot) and Tyler Davis (undisclosed).

The Tigers were also without a third defensive tackle in Tre Williams, who was held out with a knee injury. Davis, Bresee’s running mate on the interior, has missed the last two games while Thomas has yet to play this season after sustaining his injury during the latter part of preseason camp, though they could be back sooner rather than later.

While Swinney kept things close to the vest when asked Wednesday about the status of the Tigers’ injured players, he said last week that Davis probably could have played against Louisiana Tech if he was needed, an indication Davis may have simply been held out again as a precaution. As for Thomas, Swinney reiterated the senior edge defender is close to returning and cracked a smile when asked specifically if Thomas will be available for Saturday’s game.

“Maybe,” Swinney said. “I’m hopeful.”

In the meantime, Clemson has gotten a closer look at some of its linemen further down the depth chart who have helped fill in. Kevin Swint, a former linebacker who averaged less than eight snaps a game in his first two seasons with the Tigers, has 11 tackles and a fumble recovery as part of the rotation at end with Henry, Myles Murphy and Justin Mascoll. On the interior, sophomore Payton Page logged a season-high 23 snaps last week. Third-year sophomore DeMonte Capehart, who played just 20 snaps all of last season, got in for 17 snaps.

Co-defensive coordinator Mickey Conn said being able to build the kind of depth Clemson is going to need over the course of the season is a silver lining to all the attrition. But now would be a good time for the Tigers to start getting some of their frontline guys back if they want to maximize their chances of disrupting what’s been one of the ACC’s most prolific offenses to this point.

Wake Forest is bringing the league’s second-highest scoring offense and second-best passing offense into Saturday’s matchup.

“When you play hopefully a 15-game season, you’ve got to build that depth. You’ve got to build that confidence,” Conn said. “I’m excited we got to do it here early, but it’ll be great to get (our starting linemen) back. I’m excited about that.”

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