Fearsome foursome: Clemson’s D-line set to wreak havoc
Ferrell is among the quartet of starters with end Austin Bryant and tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence who are all projected as high-round NFL draft picks next spring. They’ve been on the cover of Sports Illustrated and hear crazy predictions about 100 sacks and multiple shutouts ahead for No. 2 Clemson.
“It’s kind of been the longest offseason between everything,” said Ferrell, the 6-foot-5, 260-pound junior who’s had 15.5 sacks and 30.5 tackles for loss the past two seasons. “We want to enjoy because we know were on the verge of something special if everything goes right.”
Many say it already did for Clemson’s defense . Wilkins, Ferrell and Bryant thought hard about the pros after last season, yet all returned to a stacked unit that added two five-star lineman in Xavier Thomas and K.J. Henry — both among the top college prospects in the country last year.
The four starters combined for 25 of Clemson’s 46 sacks last season, a total that tied Southern Cal for most in the FBS.
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has looked hard for signs these past eight months of his starting line living off past success, coasting due to NFL potential or waiting to kick things into gear until the regular season. He found none of that.
“They’ve been dialed in since they’ve been here,” Venables said. “They’ve taken ownership and accountability, shown up every day ready to work.”
Venables has coached this sort of group before.
In 2014, the Tigers led the country in total defense anchored by a front of ends Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford and tackles Grady Jarrett and Deshawn Williams. All four played in the NFL with Beasley and Jarrett helping the Atlanta Falcons reach the Super Bowl two seasons ago.
Once Wilkins made the choice to return to school — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said all his returning defensive linemen came back in large part because their projections from the NFL draft advisory board were lower than anticipated — he put aside disappointment and the outside talk of others. He understands the excitement (the SI cover proclaimed the four “The Best Ever”), but is just ready to do what he does best in creating havoc on the field.
“I feel like we just like to go to work and handle our business,” said Wilkins, a 6-4, 300-pound grad student.
Wilkins is probably the most high profile of the four. He played from the moment he stepped on campus in 2015 and made headlines when he became Clemson’s first defensive lineman to catch a pass on a 31-yard fake punt throw in a bowl win over Oklahoma.
Wilkins caught a touchdown pass the next season and picked up some dubious attention in Clemson’s College Football Playoff semifinal game against Ohio State when he placed his hand in an inappropriate spot on an opponent’s body. That was largely forgotten a week later when the Tigers defeated Alabama 35-31 to win the 2016 national title with the flexible, athletic Wilkins doing pirouettes and splits in celebration.
Wilkins and the Tigers were unhappy last season when Alabama’s defense stifled Clemson 24-6, a defeat that has fueled the team through offseason workouts. The opener comes Saturday at home against Furman.
Wilkins is confident he and his line mates — he’s the leader of what he calls the “Power Rangers,” based on, yep, the children’s show — can have a big year if they keep focused on what’s important.
Bryant, who had 8.5 sacks a year ago, summed it up best. No one will care, he said, about magazine covers and hype if Clemson’s line doesn’t play up to its potential. “We don’t bring it up,” Bryant said. “Because it’s really not important.”