When defensive end Kevin Dodd decided to join Shaq Lawson in last year’s NFL Draft, it meant Clemson was going to have to replace 24.5 sacks and 49 tackles for loss. It also meant the most experienced defensive end returning was Austin Bryant, who had shown flashes of his potential in the Orange Bowl after Lawson was injured, but had very little experience overall.
But by the time spring practice came to a close last April, head coach Dabo Swinney was feeling okay about his defensive ends, despite their lack of experience. It helped that they cross trained defensive end Christian Wilkins.
“That gave me a lot of confidence because I knew he could do it,” Swinney said.
Swinney also felt good about the other guys he saw. Clelin Ferrell had a good spring, as did Bryant. Richard Yeargin made progress and so did Chris Register. However, it appeared the end positions might have taken a step back in training camp after Bryant broke a bone in his foot and had to miss the next six weeks.
So the Wilkins’ project at defensive end was officially on.
“Once we had the injury to Austin we had go in a different direction and we had to bring some guys along,” Swinney said. “We had to make a decision on Xavier so when he got hurt that kind of changed the game.”
Once the season started, everyone’s concerns about the defensive end positions soon ended. Wilkins was an All-American performer with his 12 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks to go along with 52 tackles. Ferrell added five more sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. The two solidified a defensive front that is considered one of the best in college football.
The emergence of Wilkins at defensive end and Ferrell helped Clemson once again rank among the leaders in sacks and tackles for loss. The Tigers rank second nationally with 46 sacks, while they rank third in tackles for loss with 112.
“I had one hundred percent confidence we could pop (Wilkins) out there. It helped with the emergence of Dexter (Lawrence) and watching him and seeing where he was. There was no doubt in my mind we would be just fine right there.
“We had more functional guys that could go play, and did not feel like we had to play guys on every snap of the game like we had to last year for much of the season.”