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2017 Fall Camp Preview: Defensive Line

Clemson’s defensive linemen have dubbed themselves the Power Rangers and even dressed up like them on Halloween last year. Before practices, they “morph and power up,” according to the White Ranger, Wilkins.

“We started that last year because I am a chronic Power Rangers fan,” Wilkins said. “I just brought it to the guys, and they all loved the idea. Every day before practice, that is one of our handshakes. We all morph and power up. When that helmet comes on, it is morphing time. It is time to power up.”

Wilkins, the leader of one of the top units in college football, might really be a Power Ranger.

Following a stellar freshman season at defensive tackle, he had no trouble transforming into an All-American defensive end in 2016. He was tasked with playing a new position after defensive end Austin Bryant suffered a foot injury in the spring that forced him to miss the first six games, but picked up the position quickly and handled his new role in stride.

Often after big plays, Wilkins can be seen celebrating by “morphing” like a Power Ranger, and the big-time playmaker did that a lot last season. The native of Springfield, Mass., filled up the stat sheet, recording 56 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, a school-record 10 pass breakups and 20 quarterback pressures as he started all 15 games. Along with first-team All-American honors, Wilkins was a Nagurski Trophy finalist and Bednarik Award semifinalist.

Before this spring, Dabo Swinney indicated Wilkins would return to the interior defensive line.

Either way, it doesn’t matter to Wilkins.

“I’m doing whatever the coaches ask,” he said. “If they want me to go inside, I will go inside obviously. If they want me to go outside, I will play outside. I feel comfortable doing both. I have a year of experience at each so I’m good to go wherever they need me.”

DEXTER LAWRENCE: 6-5, 337, SOPHOMORE, NOSE TACKLE. Clemson winning the national title in Lawrence’s first season at Clemson was no coincidence. He was the most dominant true freshman defensive tackle the school has seen since William Perry during the Tigers’ 1981 national championship season.

A former five-star recruit and first-team All-American at Wake Forest High in North Carolina, Lawrence’s production wasn’t unexpected, but it was nonetheless impressive just how good he was in 2016.

The 6-foot-5, 340-pound mammoth of a man was nearly unblockable as he racked up 79 tackles, fifth-most on the team, in 643 snaps over 15 games (11 starts). He also broke a Clemson freshman record with seven sacks while tallying 9.5 tackles for loss and 23 quarterback pressures en route to ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and freshman All-American honors.

Don’t expect a sophomore slump from Lawrence, who isn’t content with his enormous first-year success and wants to get better.

“I’m just trying to improve with the simple things like my technique and getting to know my playbook a little better,” Lawrence said. “I’m just trying to know where I can go on different types of schemes and things like that, just the little stuff.”

CLELIN FERRELL: 6-5, 265, REDSHIRT SOPHOMORE, DEFENSIVE END

Clemson defensive end Ferrell is moving on and he is ready to see what the 2017 football season has in store for him and the Tigers.

Ferrell of course was one of the stars for Clemson’s defense on the way to winning the program’s first national championship since 1981. In the postseason, he was almost unstoppable as he tallied six tackles, including two tackles for loss and a sack in the ACC Championship Game against Virginia Tech, and then did even better in the Tigers’ 31-0 victory over Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Ferrell harassed Buckeyes’ quarterback J.T. Barrett all night as he totaled three tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including a sack, and had six tackles overall. For his efforts, he was named the Fiesta Bowl Defensive Player of the Game.

“We have to leave that in the past,” Ferrell said. “No one can ever take that away from me. That was a great performance I had in that game. But after that game, I moved on to the national championship game, and after the national championship I moved on to the new season and started focusing on the things I needed to work on and things I needed to do in order to be a better leader for this team and try to get us back to where we were last year.”

AUSTIN BRYANT: 6-5, 265, JUNIOR, DEFENSIVE END. It was at this time last year when Bryant was the guy at defensive end. With Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd off to the NFL, Bryant was the most experienced defensive end on the roster and he was expected to have a big season after coming on at the end of the 2015 season, including a monster game in the Orange Bowl in which he tallied eight tackles coming off the bench for an injured Lawson.

Bryant had a monster spring and was considered part of two promising bookends — the other was Clelin Ferrell — that would lead a young defense for the next three seasons. However, none of that transpired as Bryant broke a bone in his foot, which caused him to miss most of fall camp and the first six games of the 2016 season.

“I learned how to persevere through a tough time,” the junior said. “I just had to work my way back patiently and continue to contribute in any way I could to help the team, and down the stretch I was able to play more and more.”

Bryant returned in time to play 27 snaps against N.C. State, and he immediately made an impact as he came up with a late-game sack. He was also a part of two sacks the next week at Florida State as he slowly made his way back onto the football field.

“That is when I realized during the season I could do close to what I was doing in camp,” Bryant said.

The 6-foot-4, 265-pound defensive end went on to play at least 22 snaps in every game after the Tigers’ win in Tallahassee, Fla., including a season-high 39 against Alabama after Ferrell went down with an injury.

With Christian Wilkins moved back inside this past spring to defensive tackle, Bryant reassumed his position as a starting defensive end, a position he obviously embraces with pride.

“I was preparing as if I was the starter before I got hurt during camp, and then I had to take time out,” he said. “But even when I was behind (Wilkins), I was preparing like I was the starter. My mindset never really changed, but now I am the starter so I have to prove it every day and earn it every day.”

 

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