Heading into the 2017 football season, Clemson’s defensive line is considered one of the best in college football. There are two big reasons for that, and we are talking two very big reasons.
Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence return not just as the best pair of defensive tackles in the ACC, but in the country as well. Wilkins has moved back inside after playing the 2016 at defensive end, where he earned First-Team All-American honors, while Lawrence was the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and played a vital role in the Tigers run to a national championship.
“Yeah, I’m really looking forward to what me and Dexter are able to do,” Wilkins said last week during the ACC Football Kickoff event at The Westin Charlotte in Charlotte, N.C., last week. “There’s a lot of talk about that, but we both know we’ve got to put in the work.”
Wilkins (6-4, 310) and Lawrence (6-5, 340) are being coveted by just about every preseason All-American team and preseason watch list. Recently, the two joined Clemson offensive linemen Tyrone Crowder and Mitch Hyatt to the Outland Trophy Watch list. Wilkins and Lawrence were also named to the Bednarik Award watch list as the nation’s best defensive player, while Wilkins is on the Maxwell Award watch list which goes to the best overall player in the country.
“We both have a lot of potential and we both haven’t reached our fullest potential yet as football players, and I’m pushing him every day and he’s pushing me,” Wilkins said. “And not only us, but everybody else on the D-line, Cle (Ferrell), Austin (Bryant), all the other power rangers on the D-line.
“I’m pushing them to be their best and they’re all pushing me to be my best, as well.”
With Bryant out with a broken foot to start the season in 2016, Wilkins moved to defensive end where he created a lot of havoc for opposing offensive tackles. He finished the year with 56 tackles and was second on the team with 13 tackles for loss. He was also second on the team in pass breakups as he knocked down 10 passes – the most by any defensive lineman or linebacker in the country.
“Really what I think about is being disruptive on every play, however that can happen,” Wilkins said. “Initially, stopping the run, that’s my first thought, and stopping the pass, getting to the quarterback, but I mean, if I can’t do that, I’ve just got to try to disrupt the play in any way I can, when it’s a tougher time to rush or based off the pass protection, and trying to get my hands up.
“It’s all about knowing football. If you pick up things on the game plan, if you know the team’s tendencies and things like that, it’s easier to get your hands on the ball. If you know a team likes to throw the ball to a receiver on third-and-short or on a slant or something, it’s easier to get your hands up.”
As for Lawrence, he had 78 tackles from his nose tackle position and set a Clemson freshman record with 9.5 tackles for loss as well as freshman record 7 sacks. He also had 23 quarterback pressures, second on the team to Wilkins’ 24.
“Having he and Christian inside gives us a dynamic duo for sure,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “So hopefully the good Lord will keep those guys healthy, because if they’re healthy for the course of this season, we’re going to be tough in the trenches.
“There’s no doubt about it, because both of them have good football IQ’s. That’s the other thing about Dexter — very, very smart. Very coachable. Corrects his mistakes and plays with a great motor. He’s a guy that has a high care for his performance.”
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