Several times during Clemson’s run to the national championship last year, defensive coordinator Brent Venables pointed to Carlos Watkins as the catalyst for the way his young defense played.
He pointed out several times that Watkins was a selfless player, who could have bolted for the NFL a year early and would have been drafted and playing on Sundays. But Watkins was never about himself. He knew by coming back to Clemson he gave the Tigers a better shot at returning to the national championship game and winning it the second time around.
Despite the fact the Tigers’ returned Christian Wilkins on the defensive line and had the No. 2 defensive tackle in the country, Dexter Lawrence, already in school and working, Watkins never flinched in his commitment to Clemson. Instead, he buckled down and worked harder to keep his position while also carrying his younger teammates along with him.
The end result, Watkins set the all-time sack record by at defensive tackle with 10.5, which led a Clemson defense that finished third in the country in sacks in 2016. By staying at Clemson and putting in the work, Watkins not only became a national champion, but he improved his draft stock which could lead to a Day 2 pick on Friday evening when the 2017 NFL Draft continues with rounds 2 and 3.
“Carlos was a full grown man … a fifth year senior,” Venables said to The Clemson Insider recently. “He was very experienced. Just like Ben (Boulware) was. Just like Cordrea (Tankersley) was. Just like Jadar (Johnson) was. They were seniors.”
But the days of players sticking around, especially fifth-year guys that have graduated, are quietly disappearing. Since the NCAA passed a rule nearly a decade ago that allows graduate players to transfer and play without having to sit out a year, more and more fifth-year players are leaving their programs to see if the grass is greener on the other side. In some cases it is, but in some cases it is not.
This year alone, since the Tigers won the national championship in January, three defensive players, who would have been graduate players in 2017, have left the team and have decided to transfer, including safety Korrin Wiggins, whose news of his transfer broke on Friday.
Wiggins, who will graduate in May from Clemson, joins cornerback Adrian Baker and defensive tackle Scott Pagano as former starters who are leaving the program to play somewhere else. For Venables, it is a trend that is starting to become a little disturbing.
“Everyone wants to get in a hurry and these guys want to go play their senior year somewhere else and start over,” Venables said. “Good luck! We will see how that works for the landscape of college football.
“I don’t believe in that. It is a shame. If a guy is not going to play at all, then that is a whole other deal. But if a guy is playing, I have a real distaste for that. People that support that … ‘well you got to’ … that is not how it works.”
Wiggins’ decision to transfer comes as a little bit of a surprise after the redshirt senior participated in spring drills and appeared to be making his way back on the two-deep depth chart at safety. The Durham, N.C. native had to redshirt his junior season after tearing his ACL in fall camp. He returned last season, but played very sparingly has he had issues from the injury which limited him and caused him to drop on the depth chart.
During spring practices, Venables mentioned Wiggins several times in his post-practice interviews as a guy that had really come on and was someone they thought could help them this coming season at safety. At the time, the Clemson coaches felt Wiggins was getting back to his old self when he was making plays as a freshman and sophomore prior to the ACL injury.
“You have to go to that place and you have to start over,” Venables said in general about graduate seniors that transfer. “You are not going to play nearly as well. You don’t know … those people are not nearly has invested in you … you are surrounded by … and again, I know this is going to be a good defense, so you play in a good defense. That means you are playing with good players and in a system that everybody knows. That affects you dramatically as a player within the schemes.”
Baker tore his ACL in the spring of 2016 and never made it back to the playing field before he decided to leave school in February, while Pagano, who has started 13 and played in 31 games in his career at Clemson, announced he was leaving Clemson in February as well.
Baker, who played in 16 games and started three, has announced he is transferring to Oklahoma State, while Pagano is transferring to Oregon.