Photo by Austin Silvey
Don't worry, Tiger fans, you don't have to be concerned about the Clemson defensive line just yet. In fact, you may get to bear witness to one of the greatest defensive lines to ever play college football this upcoming season when Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, and Austin Bryant line up to terrorize offensive lines around the ACC and beyond.
The "Power Rangers" all elected to return for the 2018 season and enjoy a historic year. Not to mention the unbelievable depth the Tigers will have this season, with guys like Albert Huggins and Richard Yeargin considered "rotational players," but would probably be headline starters at most other schools around the nation.
Expectations are understandably sky-high for this talented and deep group the Tigers have assembled in the trenches. However, all great things must come to an end eventually. Possibly the only down-side to fielding a defensive line this elite is that all will be highly coveted NFL draft prospects in the coming spring. Wilkins and Bryant will have both exhausted their eligibility, and Ferrell and Lawrence will likely be Top 10 picks.
Albert Huggins is also graduating, and will be a steal in the draft. As this soon-to-be legendary Clemson D-Line departs next April for The League, the tide will quickly turn from "how good can this 2018 defensive front be?" to "who is going to replace these guys in 2019?" Clemson recruits well, it's no secret at this point. However, some tight scholarship numbers over the past few recruiting cycles and the surprising transfer of prized five-star defensive tackle Josh Belk to rival South Carolina has left Clemson in a tough situation entering next season.
The Tigers will only return three defensive tackles in 2019. Sure, the line will probably be okay, as the defensive end position group will still be insanely loaded, with rising sophomores, and former five stars, Xavier Thomas and K.J. Henry likely settling in nicely, alongside talented players like Xavier Kelly and Logan Rudolph.
However, fielding a defensive line group with only three players will be a dangerous task entering 2019. Endurance will be a big concern, as defensive tackles are not physically prepared to play an extremely high number of snaps, hence why constant rotation is necessary and vital to success.
Also, any injuries would be incredibly costly, lowering an already limited number even further. This has put increased pressure on the coaching staff to acquire some depth and some serious talent in the 2019 class, so the 2019 defensive front won't suffer. No need to panic yet, though. Clemson has a few months to sign some serious talent to help alleviate this problem, and already have some guys on board who could be big contributors come next year.
While everyone else is dreaming about how many sacks and tackles for loss the 2018 unit can rack up this year, let's take a look at what 2019 might be, and how the Tigers are looking on the recruiting trail in their search for some trench monsters.
First, let's look at who the Tigers will return in 2019. Former four-star defensive end Jordan Williams has made the move inside to be a defensive tackle. He's bulked up to around 300 pounds, but has kept his quick first step that made him such a highly rated edge man. Williams is the heir apparent to Christian Wilkins, and he has abilities similar to Wilkins in that he can shift around from defensive tackle to end pretty effortlessly. Also returning is former three-star Nyles Pinckney.
Pinckney has been compared to former Clemson stud Grady Jarrett by Coach Dabo Swinney himself, and Pinckney's thick stature, but dynamic quickness does look reminiscent of the former Clemson great. Lastly, the Tigers will return former three-star tackle Darnell Jeffries, an incoming freshman in 2018 likely to redshirt. Jeffries is big, but has a bigger developmental curve to adjust to before he's really ready to compete. He was very raw coming out of high school, but has all the tools to be a solid defensive tackle. A low number of three for the Tigers, but a high degree of quality.
Next, let's look at who the Tigers have successfully recruited thus far in 2019. The 2019 class has been seen by many recruiting experts as a down year for defensive tackle recruiting. Barring a couple of elite prospects, the overall depth and quality of the class is down. Also, the defensive tackles that are considered elite are out of the Tiger's "recruiting footprint" of pipeline states like South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. Not exactly great news for the Tigers in a year where defensive line recruiting is crucial.
However, thanks to some excellent scouting by the staff and some recruiting in rather uncharted territories for Clemson, the Tigers have already put together a pretty solid class of some talented, and often underrated, prospects:
-Tayquon Johnson, 6'2"/295lbs, Williamsport, Maryland: First up, we look at Clemson's first defensive line commit of the class in Tayquon Johnson. Johnson is very similar to Darnell Jeffries in that he's raw and needs some coaching and development before he's ready to really shine. However, Johnson will provide quality depth early on as he continues to progress, and received some big-time attention from schools like Alabama and Georgia before committing to Clemson.
-Ruke Orhorhoro, 6'4"/270lbs, River Rouge, Michigan: The Tigers charged into Michigan to steal a very talented prospect from the likes of Michigan and Penn State. Orhorhoro is officially listed as a defensive end, but something you will notice among all of the current Clemson defensive line commits is their versatility. Every one of them is very capable of playing both outside and inside depending on the needs of the team. Orhorhoro is one of the most intriguing prospects in the class. Orhorhoro is only two years removed from moving to America from Nigeria.
Orhorhoro played his first season of football in his entire life last fall as a sophomore at only 225 pounds, but dominated to the point where he received mass attention from many Division-1 schools. He caught Clemson's attention this spring when it was revealed he had bulked up 45 pounds in just three months, and had molded himself into an intimidating defensive end. Aptly titled "The Nigerian Nightmare," Orhorhoro looks to improve upon an impressive sophomore season with a dominant junior season as a big and strong defensive end who's still learning the game of football.
-Logan Cash, 6'3.5"/255lbs, Winder, Georgia: The 58th-ranked player in the state of Georgia also led the state in sacks, and broke the state record for sacks in a single season last year. Something doesn't seem right about that. The knock on Cash is the fact that his arms are much shorter than the desired length by many coaches for a defensive lineman. However, his motor and speed off the edge is undeniable.
Whether Cash remains outside at his natural position of defensive end where he's obviously thrived, or moves inside to play defensive tackle remains to be seen if he can adjust to using his hands to fend off long and strong offensive tackles and guards at the college level. Cash's size, though, screams either edge rusher or quick and shifty nose guard.
-Etinosa Reuben, 6'3"/275lbs, Riverside, Missouri: The Tigers continue some recent success in the Midwest by absolutley stealing Reuben from Ohio State. The Buckeyes thought they had Reuben as a lock, but a visit to the All-In Cookout swung everything in the Tigers' favor. Reuben, another young and raw player by way of Nigeria, is a jackpot find for Brent Venables. Some recruiting experts consider Reuben a Top-50 caliber prospect with just a lack of experience. He's currently rated as the #432 prospect in the country, but a dominant senior season should change that. Another natural defensive end, his body type is ideal for a powerful defensive tackle, as he looks to be another future Tiger that can play in and out on the line.
The Tigers have four very solid committed prospects already for 2019. However, the general consensus among the program is that two more defensive lineman are needed for depth, and also for immediate impact. Another potential developmental prospect and a highly-rated, college-ready impact player will be what the coaches search for from now until February 6th.
Clemson has missed on a couple of big-time defensive line targets like five-stars Travon Walker and Zacch Pickens already for the 2019 class, but there is still a good number of highly capable prospects out there. We'll look at three in each category: Depth Players who may need some development and Impact Players who are ready for college right now, and can provide some serious minutes in the void left by Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins.
-Jaden McKenzie, 6'3.5"/280lbs, Wake Forest, North Carolina: Some good depth to help back up Dexter Lawrence's replacements comes in the form of one of Big Dex's former teammates. McKenzie is a big, strong defensive tackle who was just recently offered by the Tigers in June, and made a rather unheralded visit for the All-In Cookout. The Tigers are "slow-playing" McKenzie, or in English, not rushing his recruitment and waiting to see how he progresses during his senior season. The coaches like McKenzie's potential, but need to see some marked improvement before they put the full-court press on him. North Carolina leads in his recruitment, but increased Clemson interest would definitely change that.
-Enoch Jackson, 6'0"/290lbs, Mansfield, Texas: Another supposed Grady Jarrett "clone," this slightly undersized defensive tackle out of Texas has long favored the Tigers. Much like Jarrett, he has a quick first step, but is rather underwhelming as a pass rusher up the middle. Clemson again is waiting to see how Jackson fares during his senior season to gauge their interest, but would gladly take Jackson as a project and some depth at the very least. Jackson is currently leaning towards Arkansas, but if Clemson picks up their recruiting efforts, Jackson will quickly turn towards the Tigers.
-Raymond Cutts, 6'4"/265lbs, Orlando, Florida: Another recent Clemson offer, Cutts is another natural defensive end who could morph into a versatile defensive lineman that could play inside or out. Cutts' recruitment is still developing, but has shown interest in both Clemson and Louisville. The Tigers again are waiting to really ramp up their recruiting efforts until Cutts' senior season begins, but if the Tigers are still looking for depth come Signing Day, this is a promising prospect to turn to.
-Jacob Bandes, 6'3"/295lbs, Antioch, California: Clemson's newest offer for 2019 may be their new biggest priority, at least in my eyes. Bandes is a massive defensive tackle who won MVP Honors at The Opening Finals in June. 247Sports sees him an elite prospect, ranking him as a five-star, the 28th-rated player nationally, and third defensive tackle overall.
Clemson's recruiting prowess has already seen success along the West Coast in 2019 as they wrapped up 4-star receiver Joe Ngata from Folsom, California just this weekend, so landing Bandes isn't completely out of the question if they can attain a visit.
Also working in the Tigers' favor is the "wide-open" nature of Bandes' recruitment. Schools like Alabama, Florida, and UCLA have all offered, but he hasn't shown any favoritism toward any particular school yet. A recruitment that is still early and developing, the Tigers have a great shot to jump in and make themselves a quick contender.
-Tyler Davis, 6'1"/295lbs, Apopka, Florida: A nearly immovable object along the defensive line in high school, Davis is a stud of a prospect who has been high on Clemson's radar for quite some time. He attended Clemson camp during June and seemed to be favoring the Tigers, but recently, Florida State has made giant strides to keep this talented player in-state. Davis would be a great pickup and an immediate impact along the line, but right now, things have definitely shifted in favor of Davis landing in Tallahassee.
-Faatui Tuitele, 6'4"/300lbs, Honolulu, Hawaii: The Tigers were able to land defensive tackle Scott Pagano from Hawaii back in 2013, and would love to pull some of the same magic and land Tuitele from the Aloha State. Tuitele last made the long journey to Clemson back in 2017, but he enjoyed it enough to keep the Tigers alive in his recruitment into 2018, as Clemson made his Top Six schools earlier this year. Tuitele is much better at this point in his career than Pagano was, and would likely immediately start for the Tigers.
However, unless Clemson can get Tuitele back on campus, standing a chance with him is looking more and more bleak. Tuitele is a heavy Alabama lean, and actually tried to commit to the Tide earlier this summer according to reports, but was told to wait. Clemson would have to work some serious recruiting wizardry here, but defensive line coach Todd Bates is the lead man here, and he's already proven his worth as an elite recruiter.
Just one more to watch...
-DeMarvin Leal, 6'4"/280lbs, Converse, Texas: Leal is currently a Texas A&M commit, but before his commitment to the Aggies in April, Leal had strong interest in Clemson. I'm not sure of the strength of his commitment to the Aggies, but if Clemson can enter College Station in September with that elite defensive line on show for Leal up close, and if Texas A&M's first season under Jimbo Fisher goes less than stellar, I could see a situation where Leal would at least reconsider the Tigers.
Leal's combination of elite size and quickness makes him a force up the middle, and in my eyes, the second best defensive tackle in the class, only behind Travon Walker, a Georgia commit. Leal would definitely be a day-one starter, and a pretty good one at that if the Tigers could somehow flip his commitment between now and February.
For now, Tiger fans, relax and enjoy this upcoming season of historically good defensive line play from some of the best to ever do it. 2019 will figure itself out, as the Clemson staff has already put together a strong class of defensive lineman, and has a lot of time to add a few more.
If I had to hand-pick the final two of my dream 2019 class for the Tigers, I would choose either Jacob Bandes or DeMarvin Leal (if his commitment waivers) as impact starters, and probably Jaden McKenzie as a solid depth player. That would give the Tigers six defensive lineman in the class to go with the three quality players already on campus, for a solid rotation of nine really good players.
Clemson will continue the search to replace the trench monsters of 2018 with some more beasts for next year. Next time, we'll look at Trench Monsters: Part 2, and the recruiting of Clemson's biggest position of need, the other side of the trenches: the offensive line.
Photo from Clemson Football @ClemsonFB Twitter