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‘Never been this motivated’: Comeback season in sight for Clemson’s Xavier Thomas

·6 min read

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 Wilson High in Florence 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 Tigers’ 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.”

A tale of two years for Thomas

Thomas made a name for himself in 2018 as a freshman on an already loaded defensive line. He contributed 43 tackles, 10.5 for loss, and 3.5 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 starter role in 2019, recording 15 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two quarterback 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, Thomas collided with teammate John Simpson during a practice drill, sending the then-sophomore into concussion protocol. He missed three games, but was back on Nov. 9 to play N.C. 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, 3.5 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 third0team honors.

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 told reporters 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.

“I would say around Week 1, Week 2,” Thomas said in November when asked when he got his breathing back on track, “and then I was training still, still doing my protocol and then I was getting back in practice a little bit, doing some gameday things like that. That’s when I really started to realize I was getting my wind back and getting back in football shape.”

He made his season debut on Oct. 10 against Miami, ranked seventh at the time, then 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 3.5 sacks, helping the Tigers reach the College Football Playoff semifinals before falling to Ohio State, 49-28.

One final ride for Xavier Thomas

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 on June 25 that he’s back down to 265 pounds. That puts him five 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 long.

It’s not just his body, but his maturity has also transformed. Hall has seen Thomas grow from his experiences. Still, the larger-than-life expectations from 2018 are there and Thomas is more than ready to live up to them.

On July 19, Thomas posted a tweet that said, “They really counted the wrong one out #MoneyYear.” Along with the words was a picture of himself in full uniform — orange top and white pants — with a white sleeve on his right arm that has “843,” the area code for his hometown of Florence, written in black marker on it.

He followed that up Tuesday, after he wasn’t included on the preseason All-ACC team, with this social media post: “Never been this motivated in my life man, feels insane!!”

“I think that he, honestly, is the X factor that could propel Clemson to just an unbelievable level,” ACC Network analyst and former Clemson offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain said. “He is such a gifted, special player that if he turns it on and he stays focused, which it looks like he has, he’s lost some great weight. He looks fantastic. I think he can take it to another level.”

At the same time, 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 with the Tigers. 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 on 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, he, 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 gotta put the work in, and let’s go out and have fun doing it.”

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