Clemson’s D-Line has a bond that makes them the best unit in the country

Clemson’s D-Line has a bond that makes them the best unit in the country

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Clemson’s D-Line has a bond that makes them the best unit in the country

When Clelin Ferrell went back to his Richmond, Virginia home following Clemson’s Sugar Bowl loss to Alabama last January, he wasn’t sure if was coming back to Tigertown. There was a lot for him to consider and a short amount of time to do it.

If he came back to school, who would be back with him? Several of his Clemson teammates had already declared for the NFL Draft and a couple of others were graduating into the league after using up all of their eligibility.

However, no one on the defensive line had declared.

Ferrell already knew defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence—Clemson’s 6-foot-5, 340-pound teddy bear—was coming back considering he just finished up his sophomore year. However, Christian Wilkins—a two-time All-American at defensive end and defensive tackle—and Austin Bryant, who jumped on the scene with an All-American season at the other bookend position, had not declared.

All three defensive linemen came to Clemson at the same time, during the Tigers’ first national championship game run in 2015. So it seemed fitting that all three were still up in the air with the January 15 deadline just a few days away.

“We talked about it, but when you look at it, that would have kind of been a naïve decision because we all could have made decisions to go and leave together, but we are not going to get drafted to the same team,” Ferrell said. “So at the end of the day we just understood that we had to make the best decisions for ourselves.”

Over in Pavo, one of the smallest towns in the state of Georgia, Bryant was trying to figure out what he wanted to do. The 2017 football season was Bryant’s first year as a starter.

During the Tigers’ national championship run in 2016, he missed nine games due to a foot injury he suffered in fall camp. The year before he played behind All-American and first-round draft pick Shaq Lawson.

No one really knew what to expect when Bryant was named the starter for the 2017 season, including Bryant himself.

“It really just all happened so fast,” he said.

Following Clemson’s win over Auburn, Bryant became a household name in college football as he sacked Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham four times in Week 2 to tie a Clemson single-game record and earn National Player of the Week honors.

Following Clemson’s win over Auburn, Austin Bryant became a household name in college football as he sacked Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham (above) four times in Week 2 last year to tie a Clemson single-game record.

Bryant finished his first year as a starter with 8.5 sacks, just one back of Ferrell for the team lead, while also recording 15.5 tackles for loss and 58 tackles overall. Suddenly, the Thomas County Central High School product went from small potatoes to All-American status. Now, like Ferrell, he had one of the toughest decisions in his young adult life to make.

“It was a lot of sleepless nights, lot of prayers, lot of conversations with my family and people that I confided in,” he said.

Bryant was not the only one having sleepless nights. Wilkins was torn with what to do as well. He loves Clemson and has so much fun playing for the Tigers. It’s why he cried in the locker room following the Sugar Bowl loss. He knew potentially it was his last game in the Orange and White.

He was down at the idea of not seeing his friends again and leaving college behind. On the other hand, he had his family to think of about, too. He could give them the financial stability they need.

However, neither of those were the correct reasons to stay or go. This was a decision that had to be made for Christian Wilkins. This was his life. So, what was he going to do?

Wilkins was not 100-percent sure of his decision until the deadline to declare for the draft, as he sought counsel from various sources including family, other players and NFL minds to mull over the pros and cons of both options.

“There is a reason it took so long, anybody who knows me knows I am a big-time thinker,” he said.

While Wilkins was still thinking his decision through, Ferrell and Bryant made theirs known at the team’s annual awards’ banquet on January 13, 2018. They let the team know they were returning for one more year.

Ferrell received a second-round grade by the NFL Draft Advisory Board in January, which he said did not surprise him at all.

“I’m not going to go just off of what they say, but more so how ready I felt I am. I was kind of blessed to hear that … second-round grade that is kind of crazy for me. I have been playing for two years and not having the three full years under my belt. I was not too surprised.”

Ferrell went back-and-forth with his decision. He prayed hard about it and consulted with his family, friends and of course his coaches.

“At the end of the day, I felt like I made the best decision for me,” he said.

Bryant felt the same way. He did not want to make his decision based on what everyone thought he should or based on what Ferrell and Wilkins were doing.

“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 an experience that I’ll never take for granted.”

While Bryant and Ferrell were coming back, Wilkins debated for a couple of more days. Then on January 15, he gave Dabo Swinney the best news a coach could get … his All-American was coming back for his final season.

“We each had our own decision to make and nobody made a decision because of anybody else. It’s fun that we all decided to do the same thing and I’m looking forward to what is to come this year and finishing it outright,” Wilkins said.

 

Clemson defensive tackles Dexter Lawrence (90) and Christian Wilkins (right) share a laugh during a recent practice in Clemson.

Wilkins was the final piece on a defensive line that arguably is considered the most talented and disruptive in the country. In 2017, Ferrell, Wilkins, Lawrence and Bryant combined for 25 of Clemson’s national leading 46 sacks. They just did not sack the quarterback, but they also had 46 tackles for loss behind the line of line of scrimmage.

“They have creative and continued to uphold a standard,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “You have that wealth of experience back. They are guys that know how to work. They are going pour that onto the young guys.

“As long as their mindset stays where it has been, it will do nothing but help you.”

Venables says the key to not just his defensive front, but with any player is that mindset.

“You have to be desperate. You have to be hungry. You cannot be satisfied. You can’t waste a moment. If they are hungry dogs, that is going to show up. Those are hard to beat.”

During their three-year run to the College Football Playoff and the 2016 National Championship, Clemson’s defensive front has helped the Tigers’ consistently rank as one of the nation’s best in sacks and tackles for loss.

This year, with those four returning up front, many are expecting Clemson’s defense to be the most dominant defense in the country.

“We feel like we are going to conquer that battle,” Ferrell said. “We know we are very talented and we knew we can have the kind of success that we hope we can have. That does come into play. Complacency can sit in. You have to realize that if you don’t show up to play every day, then everyone you are playing against is going to beat you.

“They are doing their best. They are trying to expose you. That is the thing that I feel like is going to keep us from having complacency.”

Ferrell believes their work ethic and their ability to work together as one unit instead of as individuals is what keeps them all so close and working for each other.

“It’s not just about Christian out there or Dexter, Austin or even me, it’s the Power Rangers. It is a group effort. That’s what makes us, I feel like, have the success that we have had.

“We play together. We are not just out there trying to make plays for ourselves. We play together and we want to see each other have success. It is about relationships and brotherhood out there.”

Austin Bryant (right) talks with Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables during a recent practice in Clemson.

Some could say that relationship blossomed over a year ago when the group began to call themselves the Power Rangers, based off the popular television series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers that aired on FOX from 1993-’96.

Not only do the four call themselves the Power Rangers, but they dress up like them as well. First in custom at Swinney’s house on Halloween in 2016 and then this past Halloween as well.

“We do have fun,” Ferrell said laughing. “We all got in our morph suits and we were just running around Clemson not telling people who we were and stuff like that. We were just running around Clemson, running into different restaurants, ordering food, stuff like that, doing dumb stuff like that.”

It’s not very often that there is a sighting of four 260-plus pound Power Rangers strolling through the small South Carolina town so when that does occur people are a little surprised and curious.

“We were doing the whole thing like, ‘There’s too many of them guys! It’s Morphin Time!’ and morphin’ and everything,” Ferrell said. “It was crazy. People were just like, ‘Who are these guys? Are these Power Rangers on steroids?’ They were like, ‘The Power Rangers are not that big,’ especially Dexter because he’s the pink one. He had a skirt on his. That was the funniest thing. That’s just one small thing that we do.”

As proud as Ferrell is to wear the title of a Power Ranger, Wilkins on the other hand prefers to keep his Power Ranger identity low-key.

“See, he can’t be giving that out,” Wilkins said laughing. “I don’t know what he was talking about, but I did hear that the rangers were out running around. That’s what I did hear and enjoying Halloween. They were just running around having a good time. That’s what I heard that they were doing.”

Whether the four of them are putting on Power Rangers costumes for a night of “morphin” or strapping on pads and helmets for a night under the lights in Death Valley, their distinctive personalities are what create such a unique brotherhood between them.

“We just get along great,” said Wilkins. “We are four guys who have a lot of similarities but still yet a lot of differences. We enjoy having fun and being around each other, hanging out, just being goofballs.

“We are always getting on each other like little brothers and big brothers kind of thing. Always enjoying each other’s company but we’re all kind of different, too.”

Wilkins describes Bryant as the more laid back one of the group, while Lawrence, known as “Big Dex,” is described as the lovable teddy bear.

“We always make fun of him for being a big softy. On the field he’s obviously the furthest thing from a softy, but then there’s Cle who is hilarious, just a funny guy. Me and Cle have a lot of similarities too. It’s crazy how many similarities he and I have. But he’s really just like a funny goofball.”

And though they all four like to have fun and have goofy sides, they are all equally ambitious and care about each other both on and off the football field. Although football is a major aspect of their lives, it is not the only thing that keeps the four of them connected. Just like any other group of friends they find time to relax and enjoy other activities as well.

“Sometimes we do Sunday trips after games,” said Lawrence. “We go to Greenville or something and just hang out there downtown. Just eat, talk, have fun a little bit. Our relationship is not normal, you know. We pick on each other. We call each other names. We are like brothers almost.”

Just like typical brothers, along with the picking and teasing, comes the protective instincts as well. They are there for one another at all times and want nothing but success for each other.

“We got each other’s backs all the time no matter what,” Lawrence said. “We look out for each other. When one needs something we’ll do it for them. We cook for each other. It’s just like a brotherhood that we have. We just try to stay close and we just love each other basically.

“We try to pull all of the other guys along, like the other defensive ends and defensive tackles to get them along just to let them know that it’s fun out here. Just trying to build relationships is what college is for pretty much.”

Brother-like arguments and protective instincts allow Bryant, Ferrell, Lawrence and Wilkins to comprehend and understand one another so thoroughly that it shows on the football field.

“I think just knowing each other helps us on the field,” Bryant said. “Kind of knowing what each of us is going to do along the defensive line because we’re all kind of like puzzle pieces. We fit in with the defensive tackles and what they’re doing and they fit in with what we’re doing. It’s just easy to communicate with one another, especially in games.

“Then in practice we’re able to hold each other accountable. We get on to each other because we know it’s coming from a good place and we all respect each other. So, I think that’s helped us a lot just being able to hold each other accountable in practice and practice hard. Kind of pick someone up if they’re not as motivated that day or something.”

Lawrence says one of the greatest experiences for any college student is taking the time to establish relationships, relationships that last beyond the football field, the classroom and the campus.

No matter where life takes the four defensive linemen after they leave Clemson, the relationships the Power Rangers have created is something that will last far beyond their time at Clemson.

–Katie Florio also contributed to this story

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