CLEMSON - Clemson has a big balancing act ahead this season with its loaded defensive line.
The Tigers, who tied Southern Cal for most sacks in the country last fall with 46, received a postseason boost when three of its draft-eligible line starters - tackle Christian Wilkins and ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant - chose to return.
A month later, Clemson added two of the country's top defensive line prospects in Xavier Thomas of Bradenton, Florida, and KJ Henry of Clemmons, North Carolina. Both were among the top six overall recruits, according to ESPN.
And in between are plenty of rising hopefuls like tackles Albert Huggins and Nyles Pinckney, who've waited their turns the past few years and want to see more of the field.
"We have several guys that would probably be starting some years here," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Just not this year with Wilkins, Ferrell, Bryant and mammoth tackle Dexter Lawrence locked into place up front.
Those four, led by the 6-foot-5, 340-pound Lawrence, already are dominating NFL first-round draft talk for 2019.
Lawrence, a junior, is considered a top-three selection. Right behind in the top 15 projections for next year's opening round are the 6-5, 265-pound Ferrell and the 6-4, 310 pound Wilkins in the top 10. Bryant, at 6-5, 265, is part of the late first round, according to several early mock drafts.
"We are just very fortunate," Swinney said.
Clemson has long believed in rolling in younger players who earn their playing time through strong practices. Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables might find it hard to do that much this season given starters' motivation to improve their draft fortunes this fall.
Wilkins, Ferrell and Bryant all thought hard about the NFL after Clemson, the Atlantic Coast Conference champions, fell to eventual national title winner Alabama in the College Football Playoffs last season. All had first-round dreams and projections, according to several internet mock drafts. Their NFL evaluations bore that out, Swinney said, leading them to come back to school.
"Their goal is to be a no-doubt first-rounder. They made the decision to come back. That's their reason. It's as simple as that," Swinney said.
Thomas and Henry enrolled in January to go through spring practice, and Swinney said the veterans were doing their part in bringing along the younger players. When the older guys push the newcomers, the newbies push right back, Swinney said. "Xavier and KJ are relentless, and it's fun because they're talented enough to push those older guys," the coach said.
Bryant, who was second on the Tigers with 15.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks, said the spring experience was good. He didn't spend much time worrying about his decision to return or wondering what life would be like at the draft.
Bryant said the entire group of linemen, young and old alike, was focused on the right things and not overly concerned about topping program records or dominating college football. "We've got a lot of work ahead if we want to get to where we want to go," he said.
Venables has worked to step up that process. He challenged the defense's leadership at times during the spring, not letting his veterans rest on reputation or previous accolades. Bryant appreciates the effort and has seen it work, with the Tigers' defense following a lackluster scrimmage effort with a strong one.
"I think with the guys we have on this team, talks like that really resonate well because we have the type of guys that are going to respond the right way," Bryant said.
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