How can one defensive line have 5 NFL draft picks? Christian Wilkins' return to Clemson explains everything

CLEMSON, S.C. – Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins unabashedly champions himself as the embodiment of collegiate frugality. His wardrobe consists almost solely of gear from Clemson and his prep school, Suffield (Conn.) Academy. He’ll use his iPhone flashlight instead of flipping on a light, doesn’t own a car and moonlighted as a substitute teacher this spring to make some extra scratch.

His teammates discovered this last summer when he decided to host a barbecue. He bought a bushel of food, invited about 50 friends and they proceeded to complain about the heat. Wilkins’ thriftiness extends to climate control, as he declined to flip on the air conditioning or ceiling fans to cool down his overheated teammates. “I get teased all the time about how cheap I am,” Wilkins said. “It was enough that I bought all the food, I’m not paying for the utilities.”

Around college football and the NFL, there was a uniform assumption that Wilkins would be paying his utility bill in an NFL market this season. He’d been projected as a high-end pro prospect since arriving at Clemson in 2015 as a top-25 recruit. His first three seasons did little to cool the hype. At 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, he’d celebrate big wins by doing the splits, launch spontaneous backflips and even lined up at safety in the spring game.

His more functional versatility came by thriving in his native defensive tackle position, where he compares to Eagles lineman Fletcher Cox, for two of his seasons. Yet he’s explosive enough that he switched out to defensive end his sophomore year when injuries necessitated it.

His reputation for stinginess around the ACC came only in giving up yardage. He’s compiled 26 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, 43 quarterback pressures and played dominant enough his first three seasons that he’d long been slotted in mock drafts as a foregone conclusion to leave after last season. “He’s a dancing bear,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables told Yahoo Sports this spring. “He’s a complete and total mismatch before the ball is even snapped.”

On Saturday night, Wilkins and the rest of No. 2 Clemson’s vaunted defensive line will play at Texas A&M, a showcase of a unit so teeming with talent that all four starters, and perhaps a backup (Albert Huggins), will be picked in the 2019 NFL draft. The return of Wilkins and senior defensive ends Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell combine with the junior season of 360-pound tackle Dexter Lawrence to make the fulcrum of Clemson’s case for national title contention. “I feel like we are just as, if not more talented than anybody that I’ve seen come in college,” Ferrell said.

Clemson’s Christian Wilkins could be tearing it up in the NFL right now. Instead, he decided to stick around and form one of the most formidable defensive line units in college football history. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro, File)

None of the three seniors returning proved a bigger surprise than Wilkins, who’d completed his degree in three years and was considered a borderline first-round pick. His return both embodies and explains No. 2 Clemson’s stature in the trenches and the rankings.

A unit that could go down in history doesn’t come by serendipity. It took a confluence of talent, circumstance and culture to come together. Bryant didn’t get a high enough NFL grade, Ferrell wanted to become the first in his family to earn a degree and Wilkins wants to cement himself as a top-10 pick. They chose to return separately, business decisions made in a silo but for many of the same reasons.

“I feel like a lot of guys that decide to leave early, they don’t like their situation, or they don’t like school,” Wilkins said. “I’m in a great situation, love my teammates, love the coaches, love the experience. It [gave me] a little peace that this is a great place, and I’m going to love it here regardless.”

Even with the lights dim, the heat thick and needing to bum rides from his teammates, Wilkins saw comfort in the experience over experiencing material comfort. His return to Clemson shows there are things money can’t buy.

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Why did Christian Wilkins stick around for one more season? It’s the same reason he stayed at his tony New England prep school for his final semester of high school.

Finishing high school early and enrolling in January is commonplace for recruits of Wilkins’ caliber. It gives players a better chance to play early in the fall of their freshman year. Over the decades, Venables has broached the notion with plenty of recruits. They’ve declined because they want to win state in high school hoops or set a record during track season. Sometimes, their mamas don’t want them leaving home quite yet. Wilkins gave Venables a much different answer: “I really enjoy the high school experience.”

Venables’ eyebrows shoot to the top of his forehead to illustrate the uniqueness of that answer: “He just wanted to be respectful to Suffield and just exhaust every moment of high school.”

Venables chuckles at the memories of seeing Wilkins on campus at Suffield, replete in his coat and tie, mixing in as easily with the kitchen staff in the cafeteria as he did the lacrosse team or classmates from Europe and Asia. When he arrived at Suffield for his interview, headmaster Charles Cahn assumed from Wilkins’ size he was there for a postgraduate year. He was in ninth grade. Four years later, he grew into a student so beloved that Cahn insists there’s a spot open for him to join Suffield’s Board of Trustees. “He’s a once-in-a-lifetime person,” Cahn said. “He enhanced the culture of the school with his genuine thoughtfulness.”

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Wilkins is the youngest of eight and grew up primarily in Springfield, Massachusetts, an unlikely incubator of talent. Wilkins is arguably the Western Massachusetts area’s best player since Angelo Bertelli went from Cathedral High School to Notre Dame and won the 1943 Heisman Trophy. Wilkins described his childhood in a working class neighborhood simply: “Didn’t have much, but you had everything you needed.”

As colleges from Stanford to Boston College to Ohio State courted him, Wilkins kept his decision guarded from everyone. The recruiting analysts’ crystal balls ended up less accurate than Ms. Cleo predicting PowerBall. Wilkins took the same no-frills ethos from his childhood to his recruitment. He avoided the self-promotional broadcasts on social media of his visits, offers and lists. Venables’ Facebook messages went unreturned for days, and Wilkins would be too busy at school to talk on the phone. “Everything was going to be on his terms,” Venables said. “He was a deep thinker and he kind of had his guard up a little bit.”

Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell (99), Dexter Lawrence (90) and Austin Bryant (7) celebrate after a sack in the first half of an NCAA college football game against South Carolina in Columbia, S.C. (AP file photo)

Venables, deep into his second decade in the high-end recruiting game, saw all the classic rejection tells. Wilkins went dark the night before his decision. There was a late visit to Ohio State, which his family was pushing. None of his family members had come to Clemson. There were closer geographic options – including Penn State – and few tangible signs of optimism.

So when Wilkins called Venables on his commitment day, the jaded old assistant coach in him heard all the coded language that often defines the perfunctory recruiting breakup call. Wilkins thanked Venables for the time he put in recruiting him. He complimented the staff, academics and entire program. And as he prattled on, Venables waited for the conversation to veer to an inevitable conjunction – “BUT” – that never came.

Wilkins: “I just wanted to let you know I’m going to go ahead and be a Tiger.”

Venables: “I’m thinking, who else is Tigers? Wait a minute, we’re Tigers! ‘You mean Clemson Tigers?'”

Wilkins: “Heck yeah!”

Venables: “Whaaaaat? This is like a dream there’s no way you’re talking to me about committing right now.”

The “but” never came. Venables ran around his house, “like a 5-year-old on Christmas morning” to celebrate the commitment of the nation’s No. 4 defensive tackle. Wilkins enrolled at Clemson in the summer of 2015, starting another run he’d become so invested in that he wanted to extend it a little longer. “I’m big on finishing what I started,” he said. “And basically finish blooming where I was planted, it’s one of the things that I live by.”

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What can Clemson’s defensive line bloom into this season? Ferrell, an aspiring director/producer, says he’d label the group “The Monstars” or “Ranger Danger.” He ponders the perfect Clemson defensive game, which would include 10 sacks, four forced fumbles and the offense finishing with negative rushing yards. He sums up the group’s potential by simply saying, “I don’t want to put any limitations on us.”

Instead of chasing the nebulous notion of the best defensive line in college football history, the Tigers are locked in on a sterling precedent. The 2014 Clemson defense is the gold standard for the program, as the Tigers led the country in total defense (260.8) and finished in the top five in seven other categories. That marauding crew included future NFL fixtures Vic Beasley (17.5 TFLs), Grady Jarrett (10 TFLs) and Shaq Lawson (11.5).

Can this Clemson crew achieve or exceed a similar standard? The Tigers will head into a hostile SEC stadium on Saturday night with a defensive line that’s the envy of a conference whose dominant defensive fronts, historically speaking, have helped separate the SEC from the rest of college football. Wilkins is the Dancing Bear, the heartbeat of the program’s locker room and keeper of its culture. Lawrence is a 360-pound “unicorn” who specializes in bull rushes, as he earned first-team All-ACC honors last year when playing at just 50 percent health. (He had nerve damage in his foot and basically had clubfoot. He’s considered 100 percent now).

They’re complimented by the Thunder (Bryant) and Lightning (Ferrell) on the ends, as Bryant’s 15.5 TFLs and Ferrell’s 9.5 sacks last season made them the country’s most imposing and versatile duo. All four will be selected in the upcoming NFL draft, with Lawrence a lock for the first round and Wilkins and Ferrell dynamic enough to end up there. “If you love them, they are A-minus players, if you hate them they are B-plus,” said Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout who is the NFL Network’s draft analyst. “There’s no weak link in the chain.”

The three seniors have won the ACC three times and reached the College Football Playoff in all three of their seasons at Clemson. Only Alabama has reached the playoff in all four seasons. During their time at Clemson, the Tigers have gone 40-4 with a national title and two appearances in the title game.

While they’ve helped build a legacy, Clemson has built around them. The program’s $55 million Allen N. Reeves football complex features an indoor slide, mini-golf course and nap room, the dual trappings of luxury and winning. But the players insist there’s a deeper allure to what head coach Dabo Swinney has built. “The facilities?” Ferrell said. “That’s nice [and] whatever. When you’re winning, obviously, that’s a big attraction and what makes guys want to come back.”

Swinney assumed Wilkins would leave, as he’d graduated with a degree in communications in just 2.5 years. He’s working on a masters in athletic leadership, all while finishing a career that epitomizes it. “That’s who Christian Wilkins has been here at Clemson,” Venables said. “We’ve got a great culture, a healthy locker room, a very talented roster but Christian makes everybody around him better. Everybody.”

Back at Suffield, they want him to make future generations of students better by eventually serving on the Board of Trustees. It’s something Wilkins embraces after his transformative experience at the prep school. Well, except for one small issue. “I’m really cheap,” Wilkins said. “I didn’t realize that board members have to donate. I was like, ‘Damn, maybe I don’t want to be on the board.'”

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