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No. 2 Clemson: It's been a long journey, but Tigers' Xavier Thomas wants to finish strong

Alex Cubit
Columbia State
Clemson defensive end Xavier Thomas celebrates a sack of Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond in 2019. Thomas later missed part of the season dealing with a concussion. He's preparing to finish his college career this season.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Xavier Thomas came to Clemson in 2018 with expectations that exceeded the limitations of the sky.

He was the top-rated player in Florida after transferring from his high school in Florence, S.C., to IMG Academy for his senior year and the No. 3 player in the nation, per 247Sports. ESPN, 247Sports, Rivals and PrepStars all had the South Carolinian ranked as the No. 1 defensive end in the nation.

A standout collegiate debut then set the tone for what many projected Thomas' career to look like at Clemson.

Over the next two years, however, it did and it didn't.

Thomas' time at Clemson has come with many points of joy and even more uphill battles. Heading into his final season, the senior defensive end is ready to put everything behind him and show what he can do once and for all.

"I'm excited to see him play," Clemson defensive ends coach Lemanski Hall said. "There's no issue or anything like that. He's been focused, dialed in, focused on where he needs to be. If we can get that version of Xavier Thomas, man, it's going to be awesome."

Clemson defensive end Xavier Thomas moves in to block a pass by South Carolina quarterback Ryan Hilinski in 2019. Thomas was the country's No. 3 overall recruit in the 2018 class.

A tale of two years

Thomas made a name for himself in 2018 as a freshman on an already loaded defensive line. He contributed 43 tackles, 10½ for loss, and 3½ quarterback sacks as a reserve and garnered freshman All-American honors during Clemson's national championship run.

Thomas, positioned to be one Clemson's next great pass rushers, moved into a starting role in 2019, recording 15 tackles, 4½ tackles for loss and two sacks in the first six games of the year. Then things took a turn.

During a practice before the Week 7 game against Louisville on Oct. 19, he collided with a teammate during a practice drill, sending the then-sophomore into concussion protocol.

He missed three games, but was back Nov. 9 to play North Carolina State on the road. He made one tackle with a fumble recovery in the 55-10 victory.

In the final six contests of the season, Thomas notched 12 tackles, 3½ for loss, with the highlight being four tackles against Ohio State in the 29-23 Fiesta Bowl win. The Tiger's performance wasn't as acclaimed as the year before, especially having dealt with a concussion, but he did finish with All-ACC third-team honors.

Clemson's Xavier Thomas enjoyed a breakout season as a freshman, but his sophomore year was derailed by injury and last year he contracted COVID-19. "I always hold myself to a higher standard and didn't achieve all I wanted to accomplish last year, but you have to keep a level head regardless if I did great or bad, and you just have to come back and get to work," he said after the 2019 season.

Pandemic season

As Thomas reflected on the 2019 campaign months after it ended, he acknowledged he "kind of got a big head" and learned from the ordeal.

"I always hold myself to a higher standard and didn't achieve all I wanted to accomplish last year, but you have to keep a level head regardless if I did great or bad, and you just have to come back and get to work," he said at the time.

Shortly thereafter, Thomas contracted COVID-19 and also battled strep throat sometime before the 2020 season began. While it's believed that younger people can recover quickly from COVID, Thomas' longer journey made him an exception.

He described his symptoms as "really bad," experiencing a fever and tightness in his chest when trying to breathe. He continued to deal with lingering breathing problems for the next few months.

He made his season debut Oct. 10 against Miami, ranked seventh at the time, and had three tackles against Georgia Tech the next week. The 6-foot-2 defender ended the year with 11 total tackles, four for loss, to go along with 3½ sacks, helping the Tigers reach the College Football Playoff semifinals before falling to Ohio State 49-28.

Clemson defensive end Xavier Thomas sacks Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey in 2018. The five-star freshman finished that season with 43 tackles, 10½ for loss, and 3½ sacks as a backup on the Tigers' national championship team.

One final ride

Clemson held its photo shoot for the Tigers two weeks ago, which built excitement for the season. Hall happened to see Thomas in full uniform and was so overcome with emotion that he hugged the senior, who tweeted out June 25 that he's back down to 265 pounds. That puts him 5 pounds lighter than his listed weight on his football bio.

"I was so excited to see him, to see how his body has transformed," Hall said, adding that Thomas has been locked in and focused all summer.

It's not just his body; his maturity has also transformed. Hall has seen Thomas grow from his experiences.

Hall's message to Thomas, who graduated with a degree in criminology in December, has been to embrace the journey and enjoy his final year. Distractions and unforeseen circumstances abound, something with which Thomas is more than familiar.

Whatever happens, though, he has coaches and teammates there to assure him he's not alone.

Hall is willing to help keep Thomas, who opted to come back for one more year, on track to accomplish his goals and aspirations to close out his time at Clemson. If one of those goals is to get noticed by an NFL team, he's on the right track.

ESPN's Todd McShay released his first 2022 NFL mock draft May 6 and had Thomas going in the first round and 32nd overall to the Kansas City Chiefs.

"I've always felt like if we can get XT focused in on just doing the little things and not worrying about the outside world ... the sky's the limit for him. I love that kid," Hall said. "The emotion is, I'm here with you. You're not by yourself. We want to go out and have a great year. Control the things we can control, defensively, and then you guys got to put the work in, and let's go out and have fun doing it."

Our preseason Top 25

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

Our previous Top 25 team stories:

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels are hoping, banking on good returns from Lane Kiffin 3.0

No. 24 Washington: Huskies' Morris looks like the quarterback to run with — for now

No. 23 Louisiana: Billy Napier could be college football's next big thing (if he wants that)

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions' safeties honed their craft at Lackawanna

No. 21 Oklahoma State: The next Gundy (Gunnar) begins his Cowboys career

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes' Dane Belton knows path to NFL goes through team's success

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Ready or not, the Chanticleers intend to stay awhile

No. 18 Texas: Bijan Robinson looks ready to carry the load for Longhorns

No. 17 Wisconsin: Spirited spring helped Badgers bond, players say

No. 16 Miami: Manny Diaz seems intent on building Hurricanes from local talent

No. 15 Oregon: Ducks' program is now  reaching recruiting, NFL draft high marks

No. 14 LSU: Questions that Tigers have taken with them this summer

No. 13 Indiana: Texas A&M transfer Camron Buckley gives Hoosiers another weapon

No. 12 USC: All signs are pointing up for Trojans, making it sunny again in California

No. 11 Florida: Gators have holes to fill, but already sounding confident

No. 10 North Carolina: Tar Heels' Sam Howell managing the hype, expectations

No. 9 Notre Dame: All-American safety Hamilton could help Irish on offense, too

No. 8 Cincinnati: Fickel, Ridder have taken Bearcats' program to new heights

No. 7 Iowa State: Breece Hall stays close to roots as Heisman talk builds

No. 6 Texas A&M: Aggies rebuild their line around All-American Kenyon Green

No. 5 Georgia: Bulldogs eager to see what LSU transfer Arik Gilbert can do

No. 4 Ohio State: Maybe it's the start of the C.J. Stroud era, maybe not

No. 3 Oklahoma: Sooners' rebuilt offensive line still can be a special unit