To lead the Tigers to another national championship
Dabo Swinney admits he was a little surprised he was able to get back Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins on his defensive line for the 2018 football season.
Back in January, the best case scenario, he thought, Clemson was getting two of the three back, which would have been good as well.
“I was just kind of waiting on them to let me know,” Swinney said as he and the second-ranked Tigers prep for Saturday’s season-opener against Furman at Death Valley.
One by one, they slowly told Swinney of their attentions. First Ferrell called and told him he was staying and shortly after Bryant did the same.
Then there was Wilkins. His decision was not as simple, and to be honest, Swinney did not think he would come back.
Wilkins became the first scholarship athlete at Clemson to graduate in two and half years, and he seemed like a for sure first-round pick in the NFL. However, the defensive tackle received a second-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board and his plan changed.
“I thought there was a good chance two of them would come back, I thought one of them for sure,” Swinney said. “I didn’t think Christian would come back simply because he just graduated last December.
“Nothing surprises me with Christian. I think for him, he just loves college. If he would have gotten the grade, he probably would have gone. I think for him he knew he had an opportunity to continue to improve and finish a little better.”
Wilkins finally let Swinney know the day of the deadline to turn his name in for the NFL Draft that he was indeed returning for his senior year. But, he did it in his own Wilkins’ way.
“He kind of messed with me, called me on the phone, talked about how much he loved Clemson, how great it’s been, appreciated everything, setting you up like he’s getting ready to leave,” Swinney said. “Then he said, but that’s why I’m going to stay another year.
“Anyway, it was kind of a fun moment there. They all kind of did it in their own way.”
Now Clemson’s four defensive linemen, including junior Dexter Lawrence, are less than two days away from running down the hill and into Death Valley again. The question now is how much of themselves do they really give the Tigers this year?
“All that stuff comes up in your conversation. But, yeah, these guys, they’re as big of team guys as I’ve ever been around. They’re tremendous leaders,” Swinney said. “That’s one of the reasons they came back, they were excited about working with the young guys.
“They didn’t like how they finished last year. They want an opportunity to be a part of an unbelievable legacy. These guys have won forty games in three years. They’re very in tune to the opportunity they have as a team. Certainly they want to do their part individually and better enhance their opportunities. These guys are team-focused all the way, no doubt about it.”