How Clemson’s top freshmen defensive linemen are following footsteps of past stars

  • ESPN staff writer
  • Joined ESPN in 2011
  • Graduated from Central Michigan

In the first collegiate game of their careers against Wake Forest, Clemson true freshmen defensive linemen Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy were admittedly nervous.

Excited, but nervous. They weren’t five-star high school prospects who could overpower their opponents with pure strength anymore. They were playing for Clemson, a school that only two years ago produced three first-round draft picks from the front four. A perennial championship contender.

They were part of a recruiting class that featured five ESPN 300 defensive linemen, but Bresee, ranked No. 3 overall, and Murphy, ranked 13th, were expected to become stars who followed in the footsteps of national champions and future first-round picks Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence.

So it was only fitting that when Bresee entered his first series in his first collegiate game, with no fans in the stands but all eyes on him glued to the TV screens at home, he jumped offside.

“He’s like a big puppy dog, a big Labrador, you let him outside for the first time, bring him home for the first time and he’s wetting all over the place,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said after Clemson’s first game.

Venables can laugh about it now, because after that first penalty, Bresee’s butterflies were gone. A few plays later he recorded his first half sack. Then his first sack. Then his first blocked field goal. All while Murphy led the team in tackles (seven) and had two sacks of his own.

Entering Saturday’s game against No. 7 Miami (7:30 ET, ABC), Bresee and Murphy have moved from co-starters to starters thanks, in part, coach Dabo Swinney said, to how prepared they were for the transition to the college game.

“Most freshmen coming in,” Swinney said in September, “they typically have to develop either mentally and adjust to the schemes, the speed of the game, whatever, or they have to adjust physically, they’re lacking somewhere. … It’s atypical that you have a guy like Bryan and Myles that are just kind of advanced for, especially in the trenches.”

Natural ability and strength can only get players so far, though. It’s easy for a five-star recruit, who has heard nothing but praise about how dominant he is, to come in and expect the same results without putting in the extra work.

That was never the mindset for Bresee or Murphy. Both knew that to play early and be great at Clemson, they would need to take extra time to study film, practice fundamentals and rely on older players for guidance.

Sophomore defensive tackle Tyler Davis spent time with Bresee watching film and studying practice, technique and plays. Jordan Williams and K.J. Henry, a former five-star himself, have seen how inquisitive the two young players are and have noticed their eagerness to learn.

“I roomed with Bryan [before the first game of the season] and I don’t think I got asked [more] questions in a hotel room than I ever have by anybody,” Henry said. “When we put our suit on, when we’re going to eat, can you wake me up when we go to the meetings? It was little things, it had me laughing for real.”

Both Bresee and Murphy graduated high school early and enrolled at Clemson in January to try to get a head start. Despite their high prospect rankings, they knew they weren’t guaranteed playing time, especially if a sophomore or junior were ahead of them on the depth chart.

Murphy had been a three-sport athlete — football, basketball and baseball — early in high school but focused to solely football after his sophomore year when he realized he had a brighter future there.

“He took that time to start working on speed and agility in the offseason after football,” Myles’ father, Willard, said. “From 10th to 11th grade he went from running a 4.85 to a 4.6 40. Being 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, running a 4.6 40 was pretty impressive as a junior in high school.”

Murphy connected with former NFL defensive end Chuck Smith to work on his pass-rushing, all while Murphy trained faster and stronger. He was the epitome of what a five-star defensive end would look like. So is Bresee, listed at 6-5, 300 pounds.

Right before spring camp, Bresee tweaked his knee going in for a dunk in a pickup basketball game that caused him to miss three days of spring ball. Three days doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but for a first-year player trying to learn Venables’ defense and soak in every bit of information he can, it seemed like a lifetime for Bresee. Even when schools across the country shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic, Bresee found a way to keep growing.

“He came home and the guy who had been training Bryan forever, he was still training and let Bryan come to his gym,” his father, Richie, said. “Bryan came home and grinded, got stronger, continued to work out and do everything he was supposed to do so when he got back, we felt pretty confident he was in a pretty good position to compete at least at the 2 spot. That’s all we really cared about: If you put yourself in a position to work with the 2s in Coach Venables defense, you’re going to get on the field.”

Murphy did much of the same, according to Willard: running hills in the neighborhood with a weighted vest, studying the playbook and running through drills at a local high school football field.

Venables commended Murphy’s high school coaches for how well they prepared him. Murphy’s discipline, focus and fundamentals established a foundation that has allowed him to not only see the field early, but excel and grow quickly.

“He’s got plenty of things he’s learning, and he has tremendous growth potential. Still, he’s not anywhere close to where we feel like he can be and believe he will be because he’s got great work ethic,” Venables said in September. “He lets you coach him, he doesn’t get satisfied easily, he’s hard on himself, he demands a lot, he understands the standard and he wants to meet that standard. So he understands the toughness it takes and the commitment it takes to get there.”

Murphy and Bresee would see each other at similar camps, along with DeMonte Capehart, Tre Williams and Kevin Swint, the other defensive line commits in the class. They all developed a relationship through high school events and group text messages and started to build a bond.

A recruiting class with five ESPN 300 defensive linemen is rare, even if it is for the No. 1 team in the country that landed the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in 2020.

But to find players such as Bresee and Murphy who have even the older players on the roster taking a step back to watch is even more unique.

“The closest comparisons, I wasn’t even here when Christian [Wilkins] was a freshman, but I remember watching on TV thinking to myself, ‘How is that guy a freshman?’ when I was a senior,” senior linebacker James Skalski said. “It’s the same way, you wish you had then when you were that age, just being that physically developed and talented and you don’t even realize it, either. You’re just out there, they’re still figuring it out.

“They still haven’t even reached the level they can and they know that, too, but it’s like I said, it’s very, very exciting.”

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