Final grades: Adversity hits Tiger D-ends, young star emerges

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Thomas missed five games and started only one contest in a pandemic-affected campaign.
Thomas missed five games and started only one contest in a pandemic-affected campaign.

The year 2020 was a roller-coaster ride for the college football season and Clemson's campaign was marked with a No. 1 preseason ranking, another dominant run through the ACC, a sixth-straight Playoff appearance and a bitter end in New Orleans.

We start our look at the Tigers’ season position-by-position with the defensive ends:

2020 final DE depth chart (snaps/final PFF grade)

DE KJ Henry - 6-4 255 so. (384 snaps/61.7 grade) or Justin Mascoll - 6-3 255 so. (377/49.6)

Greg Williams 6-4 260 r-fr. (67/60)

DE Myles Murphy 6-5 275 fr. (414/85.2)

Xavier Thomas 6-2 270 jr. (119/63.5)

Regan Upshaw 5-11 240 gr. (166/69.4)

Other scholarship DEs: Justin Foster - 6-2 275 sr. (0/NA)

Stat leaders

Sacks: 1. Murphy (4) T-2. Henry (3.5) T-2. Thomas (3.5)

TFLs: 1. Murphy (12) 2. Henry (6) 3. Mascoll (4)

Tackles: 1. Murphy (51) 2. Henry (30) 3. Upshaw (19)

Misc: QB pressures - Murphy (8); pass breakups - Henry (2); caused fumbles - Murphy (3).

TigerNet Take

David Hood: We all knew Clemson’s defensive ends would have to grow up a little this season, but there was hope that experienced hands like Xavier Thomas and Justin Foster would help lead the way. The Tigers also saw the retirement of Logan Rudolph after the close of last season, too late for the Tigers to add another defensive end to the recruiting class.

Instead, Foster missed the entire season (protocol) and Thomas played just 119 snaps. That meant that KJ Henry (350 career snaps) and Justin Mascoll (252 snaps) were the experienced hands heading into the season. Freshman Myles Murphy was the star, however, and was soon drawing double-teams. The lack of depth across the front was what concerned us most with the loss of both Thomas for his extended period (COVID/strep throat/protocol) and Foster for the season. Redshirt freshman Greg Williams is a project and tallied just 67 snaps, and former walk-on Regan Upshaw is undersized (240 pounds) but still played well at times.

Despite the attrition, the defensive ends played well for the most part right up until the game against Ohio State, when the Buckeyes took advantage on more than once occasion of the ends failing to set the edge or maintain gap integrity. This group will be even better next season with the added experience and the return of Foster (and possibly Thomas).

Brandon Rink: D-end really is one of the harder groups to assess because of the attrition David mentions. That said, the two-deep still had its fair share of 5-star and 4-star-rated talent for the bulk of the season.

Clemson’s regular rotation -- Mascoll-Henry-Murphy -- played about 33 snaps a game this season, which isn’t a tremendous difference from the top-3 in 2019 with a bigger rotation (30). The production in terms of pressure and plays per game year-to-year tilts more toward the 2020 team -- and more time from Thomas probably would have boosted those figures even more (both pale in comparison to the 2018 campaign with two NFL draft picks: 11.5 sacks/19.5 TFL for Clelin Ferrell; 8/14.5 for Austin Bryant; 3.5/10.5 for Thomas). The pandemic-affected season really wreaked havoc on the former 5-star's junior campaign.

Murphy lived up to his high school hype and was a much-needed stalwart on the edge with Foster out, who made honorable-mention All-ACC last year with 4.5 sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss and 12 QB pressures. In PFF grades, Murphy led the nation against the run (92.5) and ranked just outside the top-20 among defensive ends overall (85.2; min. 4 games).

Overall though, the unit is still looking for that next step to bring the Tigers back to not getting pushed around in big games.

TigerNet Grade: B

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