Replacing NFL draft picks like Myles Murphy and K.J. Henry at defensive end is not an easy task, no matter what the year.
“I think you always feel like you have got a lot of work,” Clemson defensive ends coach Lemanski Hall said this past spring. “When you think about Myles and K.J., they played a lot of snaps, and they were guys that you could trust to go out and play and execute at a high level.
“Then you come into this spring, and that is what the spring is for, it’s to get the young guys ready. You come in and you don’t have XT (Xavier Thomas), you don’t have (Justin) Mascoll.”
Luckily for Hall and the Tigers, they will have Thomas and Mascoll back this fall. However, what he does not have is a lot of returning production from 2022.
Though he played in just three games in 2022, Thomas is the only returning defensive end to record a sack last year. He and Mascoll combined for 5.5 tackles for loss, while Thomas was credited with two sacks.
Though Thomas and Mascoll are veteran players that give Clemson experience at the starting positions, there is not much experience at all behind them.
“I came into the spring excited. I was excited to get these guys some reps and to just see what they could do,” Hall said. “Every guy from my position group has gone against the first team (offense). I rotate them all. I did that so I could really get a true evaluation on who can play on Saturdays.
“A few of them have shown me they can play on Saturdays.”
Behind Thomas and Mascoll, Hall will have redshirt sophomores Cade Denoff and Zaire Patterson, as well as redshirt freshman Jaheim Lawson and freshman T.J. Parker at his disposal. Clemson could even bring over freshman defensive tackle Peter Woods into the fold, depending on where he is with his development.
Evan McCutchen, Levi Matthews, Armon Mason, and freshmen A.J. Hoffler and David Ojiegbe may also be in the mix for playing time.
“I am pleased so far with what I have seen out of the young guys. We are not quite there yet, but they are definitely making strides,” Hall said.
Outside of Denoff and Patterson, Parker appears to be the one who has the best opportunity to play. After enrolling early, he had a productive spring and physically, at 6-foot-4, 255-pounds, he is ready to play, which is what he showed in flashes.
“He’s everything I thought he would be when I recruited him,” Hall said. “He is going to help us tremendously.”
Parker was a disruptive pass rusher in high school and ranked as the No. 44 overall prospect in the country last fall.
“He is physical, and he is a big kid,” Clemson’s defensive ends coach said. “He has a great foundation. His D-Line coach has done a great job in preparing him for college football. For a young man who should be in high school to come in and play, execute and do the things that he’s doing on the field, as a high schooler, I have been very pleased.”
Hall now has to make sure Parker and his other young and inexperienced defensive ends will be ready to go when their number is called.
“I want to make sure I do my part and that we are not the problem from a defensive standpoint,” Hall said. “We are going to hold our end of the job [up]. We are going to do our job and we are going to do it consistently.
“I owe that to my head coach and owe that to the rest of the defensive staff.” Clemson will begin fall camp in August.
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