CLEMSON — For Brandon Thomas, the night of Nov. 24 was one to forget.
For about 30 minutes, Clemson’s junior All-ACC left tackle held his own against South Carolina sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
After halftime, though, Clowney took over the game. The projected No.1 overall selection in the 2014 NFL draft ran over, around and through Thomas and Clemson’s offensive line, piling up a Memorial Stadium-record 4.5 sacks and making himself a major factor in the Gamecocks’ 27-17 victory.
“I learned a lot,” Thomas said. “I learned I have to stay poised. Going into the second half, I have to stay with my game plan. Not get away from it, just stay focused.”
Now, Thomas and right tackle Gifford Timothy are focused on another showdown against a pair of elite defensive ends. When No.14 Clemson (10-2) faces No.9 LSU (10-2) in the Chick-fil-A Bowl New Year’s Eve, the Bayou Bengals’ defense will be bookended by two highly regarded pass rushers.
Junior Sam Montgomery, a Greenwood native, has 32 tackles, seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss. Fellow junior Barkevious Mingo has 33 tackles, four sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. Both are regarded among the top 21 players in April’s NFL draft; ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper, Jr. rates Mingo No.6 overall and Montgomery No.21.
Thomas says facing off against LSU’s elite ends is another chance to change Clemson’s perceived lack of toughness.
“You hear all the time about the SEC, and that they’re tough. But I think as a team we’re tough, too,” he said. “The offensive line is really tough. We should go out and show what we have – not just ACC, but it’s toughness at Clemson.”
South Carolina moved Clowney all around the line – from end to tackle to even linebacker – but LSU’s defense is more traditional and stationary. Thomas expects to line up against Montgomery, a former Shrine Bowl teammate, and Timothy expects to have Mingo staring him down all night.
Thomas says Montgomery is “quick and strong,” and Timothy is impressed with Mingo’s speed.
“He’s got some really good speed off the edge. He’s got a good motor – he’s always going,” Timothy said of Mingo. “It’ll be a good challenge for me again. Just like about everybody else this year, it’s been end after end. It’ll be a great challenge.”
Both Thomas and Timothy have made significant progress in their first full seasons as starting tackles. Thomas spent much of his sophomore season as a starting left guard, but looked overmatched in the final three games of 2011 filling in for injured senior tackle Phillip Price. Timothy struggled in cameo appearances at right tackle as a redshirt freshman, but has been largely solid this fall, holding his own against Florida State All-America and likely first-round NFL draft pick Bjoern Werner.
“I can say I’ve increased my ability to work with my hands. I worked with coaches this summer in hand placement and I think that helped me out a lot,” Thomas said. “(Being named first-team All-ACC) is exciting. I looked for the opportunity at the beginning of the year to show what I have, and to get that, it’s really exciting.”
Timothy says experience and game film have helped him progress.
“It’s a better teaching tool for yourself, because you can see how you’re doing every week against people you see on TV,” he said. “You get to see – I’ve had an opportunity to go against guys that’ll probably be in the league next year. I’ll have an opportunity to see how I need to change and how much I’ve grown.”
Both Thomas and Timothy are expected to be back next season, but New Year’s Eve will serve as a kind of final examination – to see just how far they’ve come in the past year.
“I think it’s a good challenge for both me and BT,” Timothy said. “It’ll be a good challenge off the edges, definitely an awesome challenge for us and a chance to show our talents again.”