With three out of their 4 top defensive linemen eligible to declare for the NFL draft, the world was shocked when they all decided to come back to Clemson for their final year. Amazing in today’s world of money grabbing that they would do so, but here we are.
Christian Wilkins has been a two year starter at defensive tackle, but only because he moved out to defensive end as a sophomore because of injuries to other players. The 6-4, 300 Wilkins is quick enough to play outside, but strong enough to play in the middle. It’s always helpful when the guy that’s 4th on the team in tackles is playing in the middle of the defensive line. Wilkins may have been a first round draft pick if he had gone to the NFL, but maybe he felt he still had something to prove. I’ve already mentioned his quickness and his strength, but he’s also athletic enough to do a standing back flip and is flexible enough to do the splits. How many 6-4, 300 defensive linemen can do the splits? He’s a great human being off the field and has graduated from Clemson already in actually two
and a half years.
At the other tackle is junior Dexter Lawrence. As a freshman, I thought Lawrence was the best I had ever seen. He might have been, but he didn’t have the same kind of sophomore season. As a true freshman, the 6-5, 340 Lawrence had been unstoppable. He was all over the field showing a rare ability for a young man that size. At that weight, he supposedly runs the 40 yard dash in under 5.0 which is just crazy, if true. In 2016, on the national champion Clemson Tigers defense, Lawrence had been 4th on the team in tackles. Again, that’s an amazing feat for a man of his youth and size. But, he dropped off considerably as a sophomore maybe facing more double teams. But, if you double team Lawrence, that just opens up Christian Wilkins.
This might be the best tackle combination in the entire country and both should be playing for their draft future and should have incredible seasons.
Depth should not be a problem for the playoff contending Tigers. Senior Albert Huggins and sophomore Nyles Pinkney are the top two back up tackles and could start for most teams. Maybe the only one disappointed about the return of Christian Wilkins was Huggins, but that’s just speculation. Huggins is of similar size to Wilkins, at 6-3, 305, and is good against the run, or the pass. Huggins also brings plenty of playing experience to the table. Huggins finished with 22 tackles last year with 5 tackles for loss, 1.5 quarterback sacks and 4 quarterback hurries. He’s a very valuable team member.
Pinkney redshirted his first season, but got plenty of playing time last season. The 6-1, 300 sophomore from Beaufort, South Carolina contributed 16 tackles and a sack a year ago.
Jordan Williams was a highly rated player from Virginia in the 2017 recruiting class. Recruiting services such as Rivals.com and ESPN had him as either an outside linebacker, or a defensive end. But, being with the team and working out, plus the very natural growth of a college freshman has Williams up to 6-5, 280.
Sterling Johnson and Jabril Robinson bring much needed quality depth to the mix with Johnson contributing 2 sacks and Robinson 17 tackles a year ago.
Then, there are true freshmen Josh Belk and Darnell Jeffries who will be fighting for playing time.
Belk was ESPN’s 7th rated defensive tackle in the country while Jeffries was ranked 23rd. They were both 4 star recruits and have plenty of potential.
Clemson is loaded in the middle this season, but it should be a recruiting priority in the next class.
Loaded may not be the best word to describe the defensive end position for the Clemson Tigers in 2018. They return so much talent and are adding some of the best in the country with the addition of some sensational recruits.
Like sensational tackle Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant surprised everyone by coming back. Ferrell did not like the second round grade he received and thought he could do better. Bryant only started one season so far, so he’s also got a little something to prove. Both are star players and will do whatever it takes to prove that on the field this season.
Ferrell led the team with 9.5 quarterback sacks last season and Bryant had 8.5. Ferrell also led the team with tackles for loss with 18, while Bryant had 15.5. It might be hard to get outside on the Clemson defense next season, just as it might be hard to go up the middle. Physically, Ferrell and Bryant are like twins at around 6-5, 260 with excellent strength and quickness.
Playing time behind these guys will be hard to come by, but the Clemson defensive coaches like to play more than the starters.
Richard Yeargin was coming into his own in 2016 and was going to push for playing time. However, he was in an automobile accident which injured his neck and he was lost for the 2017 season. But, he’s back and he will be hungry to make up for lost time. Yeargin is about 6-4, 265 with good quickness off the edge just like Ferrell and Bryant.
Is he recovered enough to play an entire season? Hopefully.
Another talented end returning is Chris Register. Although a career back up, Register is 6-3, 255 and also has the quickness to get pressure on an opposing quarterback.
Clemson brings in players from all over the country and Wichita, Kansas produced 4 star defensive end Xavier Kelly in the 2016 recruiting class. Kelly redshirted as a true freshman in 2016 and he
played sparingly in 2017 because of so much depth. He did have a sack in limited time showing his athletic ability.
In the 2017 recruiting class, the Tigers signed Justin Foster from Shelby, North Carolina. Foster was the 5th rated outside linebacker prospect in the nation on ESPN’s list, but he’s huge at around 6-4, 260. Foster played some as a freshman and like Kelly demonstrated athletic ability and talent. The same recruiting class also included Logan Rudolph who just happens to be the younger brother of Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph. As a freshman last season, Logan Rudolph was looking good, but he was injured and lost for the season early on.
All of the above guys can play, but they could be in trouble for playing time with the arrival of sensational true freshmen Xavier Thomas and KJ Henry.
Thomas was the top rated defensive end prospect in the country and Henry was the 3rd ranked guy. If you haven’t seen Xavier Thomas play you have been missing out. He’s got a super quick first step and he’s already college size at around 6-3, 270. He’s going to be a threat to challenge for immediate playing time, plus he’s already in school and about to go through spring practice.
Henry is not quite as far along as Thomas, but he’s still super talented and he’s taller than the other ends on the roster at 6-6, 240.
There probably won’t be a better defensive line in the country than Clemson’s and definitely not any with better depth. But, it won’t be just 2018, with the addition of Thomas and Henry and the other depth, the Tigers’ defensive line will be good for at least the next three years.