Mighty Morphin' Wilkins: Clemson DE feeds off Power Rangers
CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) Christian Wilkins' secret is out – the Clemson defensive end loves the Power Rangers.
So much, in fact, he convinced a squad of linemen for the third-ranked Tigers (No. 2 CFP) to join him on Halloween decked out as the campy, crime fighters. They stopped at several homes, including head coach Dabo Swinney, defensive tackles coach Dan Brooks and defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
''They loved it,'' Wilkins said of the coach's reactions. ''They just knew we were having fun and having a good time.''
Wilkins, a 6-foot-4, 310-pound sophomore, is leading the good times on the field for Clemson's defense, too.
He tops the team in tackles for loss on a defense that was expected to need time to find its footing this season after losing seven starters from a group that won the ACC championship and was national runner up to Alabama. Instead, the versatile Wilkins has filled the void created by the NFL departures of defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd.
The Tigers (8-0, 5-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) play Syracuse (4-4, 2-2) on Saturday.
Wilkins showed promise as a freshman last year, getting 84 tackles and two sacks to make an impact on a defense filled with upper classmen. His biggest highlight from 2015, though, may have come on special teams when he caught a 31-yard pass on a fake punt in the Orange Bowl to help spark a 37-17 win over Oklahoma.
''There are not many people who can move like he can move as big as he is,'' Swinney said.
Perhaps that's why Wilkins had continued moonlighting on offense, becoming the team's first defensive lineman to catch a TD pass with his 1-yard grab in his team's 30-24 win over Troy on Sept. 10.
Wilkins, though, understands his role and knows its disrupting quarterbacks and offenses. He and the Tigers did that to perfection to preserve a 37-34 win at Florida State last Saturday night. Wilkins, who finished with 1.5 of Clemson's six sacks, combined with teammate Dexter Lawrence to sack Seminoles quarterback Deondre Francois on third down of Florida State's final offensive series.
Wilkins kept the pressure on until the Seminoles' last snap, cluttering up the backfield and opening the way for linebacker Ben Boulware's game-clinching sack.
Wilkins is a non-stop worker who keeps the team in good spirits with his up-beat attitude, Venables said. That's an invaluable quality over a season in which Clemson is trying match its national rise from a year ago.
''From a preparation standpoint, we can't lose focus,'' Wilkins said. ''We have to prepare for every game like its Florida State, like its Louisville, like it's the national championship.''
Clemson defense is 14th nationally in yards allowed and 11th in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 17.6 points given up a game. Wilkins said he and his teammates knew it was their time to take over and wanted to live up to Clemson's strong defensive history.
Syracuse coach Dino Babers believes the Tigers have, knowing his offense will have a challenge like few others this season in penetrating Clemson's defense.
''This team has no weaknesses,'' Babers said. ''Their d-line, draft choices. Their linebackers, draft choices. Their DBs can cover and they are over six-feet in length and they are fast, draft choices.''
Wilkins is proud to lineup alongside his teammates. He was even happier that several – tackles Dexter Lawrence, Carlos Watkins and Jabril Robinson, and end Clelin Ferrell – agreed to his Power Ranger idea.
Wilkins, who watched the show when he was a child, brings his fanboy sensibilities to the field, too. The linemen call themselves the Power Rangers and Wilkins said his sack celebration is of the super heroes morphing into their ranger persona.
''When that helmet comes on it's morphing time,'' Wilkins said. ''It's all about having fun.''
More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org