A familiar face returned to 2022's initial College Football Playoff rankings as Clemson came in at No. 4.
While the road to settle who reaches the final four of college football still has a long way to go, Clemson seems poised to make a return after missing the playoff last season, the first time the Tigers had missed since the inaugural playoff in 2014.
Head coach Dabo Swinney had a very blunt take on the first rankings of 2022,
"Very little. It doesn't matter. It would be high interest if I found out where we were going tonight...My only interest is trying to beat Notre Dame. Even if they said we were No. 1 tonight, they're not going to give us a trophy tonight. It has no relevance at this point."
-Clemson HC Dabo Swinney on the CFP Rankings
Sounding like a seasoned veteran of the playoff, Swinney knows what it takes to make the College Football Playoff, and part of his recipe to be a perennial playoff contender has been having an elite defensive line.
When you look back at Clemson's playoff runs between 2015 and 2020, defensive lineman such as Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant, Carlos Watkins, and Shaq Lawson powered a Clemson defensive lines that made them a national power. A season ago, injuries ravaged a defensive line that contributed to Clemson failing to make the playoffs. Now the unit of Myles Murphy, K.J. Henry, Tyler Davis have been firing on all cylinders, all of whom are rated in Mel Kiper's Top 10 at their respective positions for the 2023 NFL Draft.
Add in the returns of defensive end Xavier Thomas, who returned three weeks ago against Boston College (a member of Clemson's 2018 national championship team and a two-time All-ACC defensive linemen) and defensive tackle Bryan Bresee, who returns from a kidney infection, and this Clemson unit might be one of the deepest in the country.
"I think it was a great week. They got a lot of reps last week and were able to get back going in practice. I'm sure they'll have the practice progression plan this week, no different than what it's been the past couple of weeks. But just really good to see them get back going and gain more confidence in their technique and playing with pad level. Hopefully we can continue to gain consistency up front with those guys back in the lineup," said Clemson defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin on the progress of the returns of Thomas and Bresee to the lineup.
Bresee is seen by many draft prognosticators, including our very own Luca Sartirana, as one of the best prospects in the NFL Draft for next year. The true junior has a knack of locating the football and exploding into the backfield at the snap. He uses excellent lateral movement and violent hand battling to get inside the gaps to disrupt throwing lanes and find ball carriers.
Notre Dame guard Jarrett Patterson, who is also rated as a Top 10 guard in the 2023 NFL Draft faced Bresee in 2021, commented about Bresee's explosive burst off the snap, "He's one of the quickest guys I've ever played against."
Perhaps the highest profile matchup in the trenches will be between Notre Dame sophomore left tackle Joe Alt, who has received the highest grade among FBS tackles per PFF College at 91.2, and Clemson defensive end Myles Murphy, who was recently graded at No. 1 in Mel Kiper's recent NFL Draft eligible players at his position for 2023. When you look at Murphy's game, he possesses great natural instincts as an edge rusher that will translate to the pro game. His lower body strength is freakish and that is what drives his advanced spin move where most scouts are already saying is on a pro level. His ability to shift from a speed play to power play is as an edge rusher is one that few actually possess.
When Bruce Feldman did his annual "Freaks List," he had Murphy at No. 3 and said of Murphy:
"The 6-5, 275-pound junior is viewed by NFL scouts as a “significantly better player” than former Tiger Clelin Ferrell, who went fourth overall in the 2019 draft. Murphy bench-presses 405 pounds, power-cleans 335, and deadlifts 505. He also has vertical-jumped 35 inches, broad-jumped 10 feet and consistently clocked in the high 4.5s in the 40"
The other two defensive line stalwarts that shouldn't be overlooked are K.J. Henry and Tyler Davis. Henry has been amongst the nation's leaders at quarterback pressures and had a signature game against NC State where Henry had eight total pressures (1 hit and 7 hurries) on Wolfpack quarterback Devin Leary. Davis, who is amongst the Clemson leaders in sacks with four and one of 20 semifinalists for the Bednarik Award, has been a fixture on the Clemson defensive line since 2019.
“If you want to know what relentless looks like, watch him,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said describing the motor Davis possesses. “I mean, he was awesome.”
Ahead of their matchup Saturday, both coaches are convinced a major key to the game will be the battle in the trenches and both coaches highlighted this in their press conferences this week.
“You have to stop the run or they’re going to kill you,” Swinney said. “The three backs are sledgehammers. All the guys up front, the offensive linemen, they create extra gaps formationally. It’s a real challenge just to line up against these guys, because it’s a different type of football than maybe you see on a weekly basis. It challenges you from a discipline standpoint, a leverage standpoint and alignment because you have to stop the run.
“They’ve got NFL defensive linemen across the board,” Freeman said. “That’s going to be a huge challenge.”
For Clemson, the talent advantage on the defensive line is a big advantage. And while they recognize their excellent play, they also recognize the existence of inconsistencies that have plagued the defense all year. "I've been asked that question so many times in the last few weeks, whether it be (media), coaches, parents, whatever," K.J. Henry said when asked about the inconsistencies. "For the most part, it's been I don't know, as much as I'd love to be able to pinpoint the exact problem. Because then we'd attack it. I can't really speak to it."
The Clemson defense, while stout against the run, leaves a lot to be desired against the pass, allowing 244.7 yards per game which its 87th in the country. There are other times where Clemson fans are left scratching their heads whether it was the Wake Forest shootout, or the first half against Syracuse where the Orange was able to gain over 200 yards of offense.
Even though Clemson has been able to make key adjustments and overcome their defensive malaises, it is worrisome with trap games the rest of the way for Clemson with them facing Louisville, Miami, and arch rival South Carolina to finish the regular season. Assuming Clemson advances to the ACC Championship Game, they will be most likely face North Carolina and quarterback Derek Maye has been playing amongst the nation's elite as a freshman.
This defensive line unit is as good as any unit Clemson has ever had, and with complimentary football coming from Will Shipley and the Clemson offense, questions will arise about the quarterback play between Cade Klubnik and D.J. Uiagalelei and the pass defense, but one thing is for certain if Clemson doesn't return it won't be the fault of the defensive line and if they do one of the primary drivers will be the defensive line.