Time to Step Up, Defense: Xavier Thomas looking for big year


by - Senior Writer -
Xavier Thomas makes a tackle against Texas A&M.
Xavier Thomas makes a tackle against Texas A&M.

Defensive coordinator Brent Venables must replace a few key components from last year’s defense, including standouts K’Von Wallace and Isaiah Simmons. Several standouts return, however, including Tyler Davis, James Skalski, and Nolan Turner, and while a few freshmen are expected to contribute -- it’s also time for some veterans to step up.

Typically when we do these offseason lists, we take a look at five players because five seems like such a magical number, but I think this defense won’t have as many questions to answer as people think and I am going to set my number at three.

The first one on this list is defensive end Xavier Thomas. Thomas had a different look and a different air about him in camp this past spring. You can just tell when a guy gets a little older and realizes time is slipping away and they finally just get it. Thomas looked the part of a veteran during the practices we were allowed to watch, and with so many talented youngsters nipping at his heels, he will have to get the most out of his ability this season.

Thomas, the rising junior defensive end out of Florence, emerged as a defensive playmaker during his freshman campaign when he registered 43 tackles (10.5 for loss), 3.5 sacks and two pass breakups in 304 snaps over 15 games. Those numbers all dipped last season, despite Thomas starting eight games.

In 2019, Thomas was credited with 31 tackles (8.0 for loss), 2.0 sacks, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery in 434 snaps in 12 games (eight starts). He missed time during the middle of the season with a reported concussion suffered in practice, and with the defense structured around the versatility of Simmons, Thomas’ numbers took a slight tumble.

Thomas knows what needs to be done and says that he once again has the edge he had his freshman season.

“I always hold myself to a higher standard. I definitely didn’t achieve what I wanted to last year,” Thomas said. “But you have to get back to work, and you have to keep a level head, regardless of if I did good or I did bad”.

Head coach Dabo Swinney said Thomas just needs to be consistent.

“Consistency in everything he does, and he is off to a great start. I love the look in his eye,” Swinney said. “I like his focus and his demeanor. He is just more mature. Sometimes you have to be exposed a little bit and understand what you don't know. Some of these guys, they have all of these tools and they certainly look the part, but you have to understand that they are just young people. And then you have high expectations and all of these external factors and so forth, and we forget that they are just young people.”

Swinney said last year was a learning experience for Thomas.

“As a freshman, he was just kind of running around, happy-go-lucky, and not a lot of pressure on him because Austin (Bryant) is there and Cle (Clelin Ferrell) is there and they kind of have him like this (under their wing) and he is just running around and having some fun,” Swinney said. “And last year, he is in a different role. And then he gets banged up and he gets exposed a little bit. He has to mature and learn how to be a complete player and not just an athlete. Not just a strong guy. Be a complete player. And then got hurt and that set him back. But he did a lot of good things.”

Thomas has plenty of room to grow.

“But there is a whole other level. It's not a theory on whether he can be a great player. but he is just progressing,” Swinney said. “You think to Andre Branch. It took him a while. Vic Beasley, he didn't start a game here until his fourth year. Xavier Thomas is a million times ahead of where Vic Beasley was. We just forget and sometimes these guys have such unrealistic expectations on them and it's a hard game and there is a lot to learn. But I am super proud of him. He has taken ownership of what he needs to do to get better and he's practicing hard and he's doing well.”

Swinney then said that freshman Myles Murphy has turned more than one head in camp, but he his ahead of Thomas at the same in their careers.

“You throw Myles Murphy in there, who is kind of like X when he first got here, you just can't help but notice him athletically,” Swinney said. “But he has a great foundation as a football player. X didn't have a great foundation as a football player coming in here. And he figured that out. He is self-aware of that. He has really built a good foundation and I think he is ready to step in and be a more consistent player.”

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