Last January, Christian Wilkins decided to return to school one more year and join his defensive line teammates Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant. At the time, he envisioned returning to Clemson and helping the Tigers win a second national championship in three years.
Now the senior finds himself four quarters away from such an opportunity on Dec. 29, as Clemson plays Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff Semifinals at the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas.
But until he gets to AT&T Stadium and plays the Irish, Wilkins will surely take in the accolades he has received in the last couple of weeks. After winning the Campbell Award as the nation’s best scholar athlete, he was named a Unanimous All-American selection, just the fifth one in Clemson history.
When asked what all of this means to him to see Wilkins honored in such a way, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said, “It means he had another great year for sure.”
“He came back, and I am happy to see that it has been an amazing experience for him, culminating with the Campbell Trophy,” Swinney continued. “I think that is something he will remember for the rest of his life. What an honor and what an unbelievable evening it was last Tuesday up in New York.
“He was up in front of about 2,500 people or so, and you name it, anyone in the college football world was there and he just dominated the moment. It was really cool to see that. You don’t get those experiences when you don’t come back. He came back, and he exhausted and got everything he could out of this season.”
By earning inclusion on all five first teams, Wilkins became only the fifth unanimous All-American in Clemson history. He joins Terry Kinard (1982), Gaines Adams (2006), C.J. Spiller (2009) and Da’Quan Bowers (2010) as the only unanimous All-Americans in school annals.
Wilkins was named a first-team All-American by Walter Camp Football Foundation on Dec. 6, then he was named an Associated Press and FWAA First-Team All-American on Dec. 10. He also earned first-team All-America honors by Sporting News on Dec. 11 before earning unanimous All-America status with a selection by the AFCA on Dec. 12.
Three of Clemson’s five all-time unanimous All-Americans have played on the defensive line (Adams in 2006, Bowers in 2010, Wilkins in 2016), and four total have played on defense when expanded to account for Kinard’s selection in 1982.
Wilkins was a first-team All-American in 2016 and 2017 as well, making him a three-time, first-team All-American. He is the fourth player in school history to earn first-team All-America status in three seasons, joining middle guard William Perry (1982-84), LB Anthony Simmons (1995-97) and WR Sammy Watkins (2011-13).
“He had a lot of fun doing it. I don’t think I have ever seen a guy have more fun playing college football than Christian,” Swinney said. “I am really happy for him and off the field.”
Wilkins’ ACFA selection on Wednesday was the third of his career, including selections in 2016 and 2017. He and Houston defensive lineman Ed Oliver both earned their third career AFCA All-America selection, making them the second and third players to accomplish the feat all-time, joining former Georgia running back Herschel Walker.
In 2018, Wilkins has 52 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and two rushing touchdowns. In his four-year career, he has 245 tackles, 39.5 tackles for loss, 15 sacks and 54 quarterback pressures in 57 games. He also has 16 pass breakups, most in history by a Tiger defensive lineman.
“He has worked hard for those individual things, but he would be the first one to tell you that the ultimate thing for him will be to be out in California and win the national championship,” Swinney said. “We are four great quarters away from having that opportunity. So, it is truly a one-game season. We say that every week, but it really is because if you don’t take care of business then you are cleaning out your locker.”