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Xavier Thomas (3) and Albert Huggins (67) of Clemson tackle Florida State running back Cam Akers (3) for a loss during the Tigers' 59-10 victory over Florida State this past season.

CLEMSON -- Few Clemson defenders enter the 2019 season with as much hype surrounding them as sophomore defensive end Xavier Thomas.

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Thomas is an explosive edge rusher who made an immediate impact as a reserve in 2018, earning near-unanimous Freshman All-American acclaim. He enters 2019 credited with 43 tackles (10.5 for loss), 3.5 sacks and two pass breakups in 304 snaps over 15 games.

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But one sack, in particular, signaled the arrival of Thomas to opposing offenses.

With the Tigers clinging to a 27-23 lead over the Syracuse Orange in the fourth quarter, Thomas exploded off the edge and flattened Orange quarterback Eric Dungy in a display that had the college football world holding its collective breath realizing he was only a true freshman.

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“It kind of is unreal, I mean that's something that you dream about as a recruit because you're right in front of the student section," Thomas said. "I mean, the game is on the line, it was a big hit. I would say it didn't really feel real until after I watched it on tape and after I felt all the emotions come out.

"I was just hoping he didn't throw the ball. It felt like it took forever to get to him,” Thomas said. “So I was just hoping he didn't release the ball before I got there. But in the end, I got to him so it was nice."

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"Just a great play for us," former Tiger linebacker Kendall Joseph said. "We really needed it and he stepped up, man. So I think that can be a defining moment in his career."

While Thomas has not necessarily sought out the video, he admitted that his friends and family have made sure not to let him forget about the hit.

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"Oh, a lot. I've seen that a lot from different people, especially people I'm close with, those who I joke around a bit," Thomas said.

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But Thomas understands that one hit will not do him, or his fellow Tigers, any good for the 2019 season, as the Tigers look to rebuild a defensive line that lost all four starters to the NFL.

"It's all about growth," Thomas said. "I mean that's what we've been doing this whole spring was worrying about growth, and growing as a d-line, growing as a young group because we're a pretty young group. We come in and just picking up from where those guys left off.

"We have no starters right now, so everybody's competing to get to that point in August. Like I said, we have no starters right now. Everybody's competing."

Even with the attitude that the Tigers have "no starters right now" being spoken by Thomas, there is an understanding that -- with the void of leadership left by the four defensive linemen -- it is up to someone to step up and be the vocal leader of the defensive line.

And Thomas is preparing for that role.

"I'm picking up a bigger role day in and day out," Thomas said. "Every practice, every workout we do, just constantly building every day.

"I mean, we recruit great guys out here. I mean, everybody, you have no selfish guys, you have a lot of selfless guys that come in, are ready to work and be a team player and do their job to the best that they can."

If there is one area where Thomas is going to have to put in a little extra work before the Tigers take on the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets Aug. 29 in the opening game of the season, it is with his body.

The 6-foo-2, 260-pound defensive end understands that he has to put in the additional work before the season to account for the expected increased workload.

"You have to eat right, put a lot of fluids in your body to be able to prepare to play those amount of steps," Thomas said. "Prep is a lot different for me now because last year I mean I really just watched a lot and got a few reps, but this year, I'm getting a lot more new reps, so I've got to prepare my body differently, which is a challenge for me."

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Zach Lentz is a Clemson University alumnus who got his start working with the Tigers basketball team from 1999-2004. Now a resident of Orangeburg County, he reports on Clemson sports as a correspondent for The Times and Democrat. He also serves as a co-host of Solid Orange, seen at 11 p.m. Wednesdays on WACH FOX 57 in Columbia. He is editor of www.ClemsonMaven.io

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