It’s O.K. to admit your college football knowledge is a little rusty. It’s been five months since any games, and a host of stars from last year have left for the NFL. Sure, you know sensations like Deshaun Watson, Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette are back, but what about the new crop of on-the rise players? We’re here to help. Welcome to the Off-Season Spotlight, a weekly feature that will introduce you to a player you’ll want to know this fall. To kick things off, let’s focus on Clemson sophomore defensive lineman Christian Wilkins.
Why is he important?
The phrase “Clemson defensive lineman” should be enough given the destruction that unit has brought to opposing offensive backfields of late. Wilkins is next in a lineage that has produced Vic Beasley, Corey Crawford, Grady Jarrett, Josh Watson, Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd and D.J. Reader just in the past two years.
Of course, that type of star production creates a consistent need for new leaders, as the Tigers return just one starter from last season’s defensive line. Enter Wilkins, who flashed his potential as a true freshman in 2015 but should now become a key contributor in 2016. The only question is where. Wilkins gives defensive coordinator Brent Venables some flexibility, as he is capable of playing at defensive tackle or defensive end despite his 315-pound frame.
Expectations will be high for Wilkins and the rest of the rebuilt Tigers defensive line, as Clemson has recorded 93 sacks and 257 tackles for loss over the past two seasons. With only one starter back in the secondary, coach Dabo Swinney will likely need his pass rush to create pressure to help out the new defensive backs. Wilkins’s ability to help the Tigers reload in the trenches is essential to Clemson’s hopes of repeating as ACC champions and returning to the College Football Playoff.
What has he already done?
Wilkins came to Clemson as a four-star recruit in the Tigers’ 15th-ranked class of 2015, according to Scout.com. Despite being stuck behind Carlos Watkins and Reader at defensive tackle, Wilkins still worked his way into the rotation, earning playing time in every game last season and one start. He finished the year with 33 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble.
How did he look this spring?
With much more depth at defensive tackle, Clemson appears to be excited about the prospect of using Wilkins at defensive end. He spent a significant portion of the spring on the outside and had two tackles for loss from the end position in a scrimmage.
“That is probably the best thing coming out of spring practice,” Swinney told reporters in March. “Some people just says, ‘Oh, just bump him out there.’ But it is really not that simple. There is just a lot of scheme. There is a lot of calls. There is a lot to process, and you got to be able to do it. We don’t want to just line a guy out there. We need someone who is going to be effective. He has demonstrated that he can be very effective.”
Anything else you should know?
Wilkins’s tackles, TFLs and sacks may make up the relevant portion of his statline in terms of projecting his future impact, but they miss perhaps his most significant play of the season. Early in the second quarter of the Orange Bowl, with Clemson trailing Oklahoma, the Tigers lined up to punt. Instead, they perfectly executed a fake, and punter Andy Teasdall hit Wilkins for a 31-yard gain. Two plays later, Deshaun Watson scrambled into the end zone to give Clemson the lead.
The clutch reception wasn’t just luck for Wilkins, as Clemson’s Instagram account documented his many talents this spring.
Show the highlights!
As we wait to see what kind of impact Wilkins can make this season, check out his dominance at Suffield Academy (Conn.), including several highlights of him playing defensive end.
Check back next week for another rising star to know before the 2016 season.