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Clemson Football

Examining the Clemson defensive line and its outlook heading into 2024

December 31, 2023

Even though projected top-80 NFL Draft pick Ruke Orhorhoro‍ opted out of the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl game against Kentucky, Clemson showcased impressive depth on the defensive line. The Tigers are losing four starters on the defensive front and need several linemen to step up heading into next season.

After an early mistake allowed Kentucky running back Ray Davis to break loose for a 43-yard run, the Tigers limited him to just 11 carries for 25 yards (2.3 yards per carry) throughout the remainder of the game. Clemson held Kentucky to 24 total rushing yards in the final three quarters of the Gator Bowl while recording six tackles for loss (TFLs) and a pair of sacks.

Freshman duo Peter Woods‍ and Tomarrion Parker stood out, while juniors DeMonte Capehart‍ and Payton Page‍ held their own against an SEC offensive line while handling a larger-than-usual snap count.

That group will be relied upon to anchor the Clemson defense next fall since OrhorhoroXavier Thomas‍, Tyler Davis‍‍, and Justin Mascoll‍ are moving on after the season. Orhorhoro and Davis are both projected NFL Draft picks in the spring.

Davis and Orhorhoro could have been selected in the draft last April but elected to return for one final year at Clemson. While making a positive impact on the field throughout the season (combining for 11.5 TFLs and 5.5 sacks), they helped set the Tigers up for the future by aiding in the development of Peter Woods‍ and the underclassmen.

"They (Davis and Orhorhoro) pretty much taught me everything, which is a credit to why I came along so fast," Woods said in an exclusive interview with Clemson Sports Talk postgame. "Everything you see out there probably comes from them and Coach Eason." 

Davis also took incoming four-star defensive tackle signee Champ Thompson‍ under his wing during bowl practices. They have taken pride in preparing the next generation of Clemson defensive linemen, which could lead to shorter learning curves for the group that must step up in 2024.

While the projected starting lineup on the defensive front is not crystal clear, my post-Gator Bowl projections for the 2024 season are that Parker and Cade Denhoff‍ will start at defensive end (barring any portal additions), while Woods and Page will start on the interior.

The breakdown:

Barring injury, it's obvious that Parker and Woods will start at Clemson next year. Both earned freshman All-American honors and are key pieces in Clemson's defense.

It's much more challenging to project the other two starters. 

The case for Cade Denhoff: I am basing my evaluation on a small sample size of snaps at Clemson. He is a former high four-star recruit (top 110 in the nation) and fits the size profile Clemson has preferred at the edge position in recent years (6'5, around 250-260 pounds). Denhoff contributed against Kentucky with a pair of tackles and one TFL. He hasn't had many opportunities to play due to the return of Mascoll and Thomas this fall and Parker's emergence.

It is concerning that Denhoff didn't push for meaningful playing time at Clemson in 2023. He experienced some ups and downs in limited snaps late in the season and has some upside, but the lack of certainty at what has been an annual position of strength at Clemson is surprising.

The case for Payton Page: He's another former top-110, high four-star national recruit and is a strong run-stopper. He is the highest-graded returning defensive lineman outside of Woods (75, per Pro Football Focus).

Page posted a higher snap count than Capehart in the regular season and fits the size profile Clemson prefers at the interior defensive line position. It makes sense he would at least be listed as a "co-starter" on Clemson's depth chart release after fall camp.

I expect Capehart, Victor Burley‍, and Caden Story‍ to get rotational snaps throughout the season. Outside of the Parker-Woods duo, the depth on the defensive line is underwhelming compared to past seasons but does have some raw talent, including unproven 2023 blue-chip recruits like AJ Hoffler‍, Stephiylan Green‍, and 2024 signee Darien Mayo‍, who is a more advanced prospect than advertised.

Without any immediate defensive line starters coming in through the transfer portal or high school recruiting, new defensive ends coach Chris Rumph and veteran defensive tackles coach Nick Eason have a young and raw group to mold leading into the 2024 season.

At this point, the defensive line projects as a "B-minus" level position group. There is plenty of young talent and potential, but the staff must develop it quickly to improve depth, especially at defensive end.

This group will start with a tough matchup to open the season against Georgia, one of the nation's top ten 2023 offenses, on August 31.

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