Xavier Thomas leads Clemson's next wave of defensive stars

Clemson sacks Syracuse QB (0:31)

Eric Dungey is sacked by Clemson's Xavier Thomas for a loss of eight yards in the final moments of the fourth quarter. (0:31)

CLEMSON, S.C. -- In the moment, Xavier Thomas was just thinking, "Please don't throw it."

The rest of the world saw lightning in a bottle. Thomas felt like he was running in quicksand.

This was late September, the turning point in Clemson's season when a third-string quarterback led a comeback win and Thomas, the freshman defensive end who'd seen only limited playing time thus far, had a beat on Syracuse QB Eric Dungey.

There was the snap, and then instantly Thomas was in the backfield.

Please. Don't. Throw. It.

If only Dungey had known what was coming, he would have thrown it. He'd have thrown it anywhere -- into the stands, off Thomas' helmet, anywhere that kept him from being buried into the turf with such force that 85,000 people who'd spent the entire game on pins and needles suddenly erupted at once, Thomas' hit the on-field release of all the stress that had hung over the stands for 58 minutes of action.

"It didn't seem real," Thomas said. "Right in front of the student section, game on the line. It didn't feel real until I watched it on tape."

Thomas figures he's watched the play a few dozen times at least now. He's stopped counting. Friends send it to him with laughing emojis. Family sends it to him to get him hyped. Heck, even Dungey jumped on to Thomas' Instagram page to comment on the video.

"Next time," Dungey wrote, "let me know when you come free off the line."

The sack effectively secured a win for Clemson in the closest call of the season, a season that ended with a national championship. But it also offered the Tigers a sneak peak into the future -- a look ahead to what the next chapter would be for a defensive front that has, for the past six seasons, been the best in college football.

Want to know if Clemson's ready to rebuild a legendary defensive line? Watch Thomas absolutely bulldoze Syracuse's quarterback and then remember he was playing just the fifth game of his career.

"Yeah," Dabo Swinney said, recalling the play. "You might want to block that guy."

Defensive legacy

If there was a foundation upon which this Clemson mini-dynasty was built, it was the group of defensive linemen that finished every season of their careers with a berth in the College Football Playoff. Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Dexter Lawrence could all be first-round draft picks later this month, and Austin Bryant will join them at some point on draft weekend. It was as talented a front four as Clemson has ever had -- and that's a hefty statement.

After all, before that group there was Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd. And before that, Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett. In fact, over the past six seasons, Clemson's defense has recorded 280 sacks (35 more than any other team), led the nation in tackles for loss five times and pressured the opposing QB on 35.2 percent of drop backs, a virtual tie with Alabama for the second-best rate in the nation.

So yeah, there's a legacy in the D-line room at Clemson, which makes this spring an awfully interesting one as coordinator Brent Venables and the Tigers build a new starting unit, with Thomas at the forefront.

Not that anyone's pushing that narrative inside the locker room.

"They know the standard of our program and the expectation we have," Swinney said. "There's been a lot of great players to come before them, but I want them paving their own path."

At the moment, that new path is a windy one, full of fits and starts and really bad hand placement.

There's no Wilkins or Ferrell to lead the group. Thomas is among the de facto veterans now, but he admits he's not naturally vocal. In fact, it's just a lot quieter in general.

"There's definitely less trash talk," tailback Travis Etienne said. "Christian and Cle said something every play."

The new guys? They're not there yet.

"Maybe when we get a little more confidence," Thomas said.

Makes sense. Thomas has a year as a backup under his belt. Justin Foster has gotten work in over two seasons, and Swinney raves about his upside this year. But Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams have been sidelined, and the rest of the group is a little green, to put it mildly. But they're finding their footing.

Tyler Davis has been the hot name of spring ball, with raves from coaches and teammates, but Swinney said he's still got work to do with his hand placement and fundamentals.

Logan Cash has been explosive, but he's a work in progress with the fundamentals.

Darnell Jefferies has a knack for the fundamentals, but he showed up undersized and needs to add serious weight during the summer.

K.J. Henry, Etinosa Reuben, Justin Mascoll -- there's good, there's bad, and while it's encouraging, it's a far cry from last spring.

"They all bring something right now," Swinney said. "They're all good at something and terrible at other things. But the combination of the group, it's pretty fun to watch."

A year ago, the requests for interviews and photo ops for the Clemson D-line piled up so high on Swinney's desk that he eventually shut the whole process down. This year, he said, he's not expecting too many magazine covers.

No sense thinking about joining the lineage of greats, after all, when the basics are still a work in progress.

"We're still putting a lot on them," Venables said. "And they've responded. None of them have been afraid."

But they're smart enough not to talk smack on the Heisman candidates in the offensive backfield. Perhaps that's a good sign of veteran savvy.

Relentless approach

There was a practice early in Thomas' tenure at IMG Academy, where he spent his final year of high school, that coach Kevin Wright likes to point to as an example of what the kid can do.

The offense ran a jet sweep. Thomas came off the edge, trailing the back, in full sprint. It was just a touch drill -- no tackling -- but Thomas is strong. He shoved the runner in the back, and the runner went flying, tumbling to the turf.

Immediately the offensive players revolted. What's this kid doing? This wasn't a tackle drill?

Thomas apologized profusely. Wright was giddy. He stopped practice, stood between the warring parties, and offered his take.

"You don't have anything to be sorry about," he told his new prized pass-rusher. "That type of relentless pursuit, you don't have to apologize for practicing that hard."

And if you're looking for a word to describe Thomas, that's it. He's relentless. That's what took him to IMG from his hometown of Florence, South Carolina. It's what helped him through a turbulent family life, with his father spending more than five years in prison during Thomas' teens. It's what pushed him to get better and better until he was the most prized edge rusher in the 2018 recruiting class.

Thomas has a tattoo on his arm of Chucky, the murderous doll from the "Child's Play" movies, holding a football. He doesn't know why. His tattoo artist drew it up, and he liked it, so here it is. But maybe it's fitting. A horror movie villain that returns, again and again, to inflict terror. Sounds a lot like Thomas on the field.

Flip on tape from high school, Wright said, and then immediately hit pause. Thomas will be two steps into his rush, and no one else on the field will be out of their stance. Happens all the time, he said. Just don't chalk it all up to pure ability.

"Some of that's God-given, but the kid's worked his tail off to develop what God gave him," Wright said.

Talk to Swinney now and he'll gush about Thomas in the same tones, but will also note he's not close to last year's Clelin Ferrell. Same is true for Davis, who's owned spring ball while filling in for the injured veterans in the middle. Still, he's not 2018 Christian Wilkins.

Thing is though, Ferrell and Wilkins had to start somewhere, too, and so this feels more like hitting rewind, going back to the beginning, seeing that origin story play out all over again.

There's something exciting about that, Swinney said. No magazine covers this year. But close your eyes. Picture Thomas coming free off the edge, Syracuse's QB in his sights, the crowd aghast at what's about to happen. Oh, there will be magazine covers. Maybe not this year, but soon.

"I wanted to come here and join the legacy," Thomas said. "It's understood. It's out there. It's the elephant in the room.