On Jan. 13, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney made the announcement that several of his underclassmen had elected to return to school for another season, including All-ACC defensive ends Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell. Two days later, Clemson announced that fellow all-conference defensive tackle Christian Wilkins would be coming back, as well.
The Tigers hit the jackpot by getting the trio of standout defensive linemen back for another go-round, and a number of various factors went into each of their decisions.
It wasn’t an easy decision for any of them, as all were coming off strong 2017 campaigns and projected by pundits to be picked early in the 2018 NFL draft. As for Bryant, he admitted Wednesday following Clemson’s first spring practice that it was a struggle to determine whether he should stick around for his senior season or move on.
“It was a lot of sleepless nights, lot of prayers, lot of conversations with my family and people that I confided in,” Bryant said. “But at the end, God led me in the right direction, and I’m here now.
“I feel great about my decision, I don’t regret it one bit. To be at a place like Clemson, to be able to continue to improve with my teammates and the coaches we have here, it’s just a experience that I’ll never take for granted.”
Indeed, Bryant is eager to make the most of his final season in a Tiger uniform. In fact, one of the chief reasons he cited for returning is that he wants to leave his lasting mark at Clemson before he heads off to the next level.
“I knew I had a good year last year, but I thought that if I came back this year and put the work in, that I could really dominate and become the player that can leave a legacy at a place like this,” Bryant said. “And that’s really what I wanted to do.”
To help student-athletes that are contemplating entering the NFL draft early, the NFL relies on its College Advisory Committee. The committee advises underclassmen on their draft prospects before they make a formal request to the league to join the draft.
Bryant said he was OK with the draft grade he received from the committee and that it wasn’t one of the main factors in his choice.
“I wasn’t upset. I thought it was a good grade,” he said. “Second, third round grade. But I just thought if I came back and put the work in, I could really improve myself and become the best player that I can be if I just continue to develop physically.”
As a junior in 2017, Bryant was named a first-team All-American by the Football Writers Association. He recorded 58 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, 12 quarterback pressures, two pass breakups, two caused fumbles and an interception in 677 snaps over 14 games (14 starts).
Entering the 2018 season, the native of Pavo, Ga., is hoping to improve his game all around. But he is especially looking to add strength to his 6-foot-5, 265-pound frame.
“I feel like I can really improve if I just get stronger and continue to physically develop,” Bryant said. “I think I can always improve in the pass rush, I think I can always improve in the run, but my biggest thing is I want to improve physically. I want to max out my physical capablities.”
While it might seem that the decisions of Bryant, Ferrell and Wilkins to return were dependent upon one another, Bryant said that wasn’t the case.
“We didn’t want to make it a group decision,” he said. “To say that somebody’s decision didn’t impact another’s would be crazy to say. But everybody wanted to make a decision that was best for them. So whether one of us would have stayed or left, we would have been happy for one another.”
Bryant, Ferrell and Wilkins combined for 174 tackles, 42 tackles for loss and 22.5 sacks. Ferrell and Wilkins were both also named first-team All-Americans by various sources.
The group will rejoin starting defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, a first-team All-ACC selection who had 39 tackles, three tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks last season. Lawrence, a rising junior, is expected to enter the NFL draft after the season as well.
In the words of Bryant, “the sky’s the limit” for Clemson’s defensive line as they embark on the 2018 season.
“All we have to do is put the work in,” Bryant said, “and I think the sky’s the limit.”