It's Your Job to Keep Your Job: How Clemson created the nation's finest pipeline of star defensive linemen
CLEMSON, S.C. —Christian Wilkins is an excitable man, and because he is also an athletic 6' 4", 310-pound man, he has special ways to express his feelings. Sometimes he sprints onto the field after Clemson touchdowns to take his place on the point-after protection unit. Sometimes he slaps teammates upside the head, his preferred gesture of congratulations. And sometimes he does a back flip. Typically Wilkins needs to cartwheel into it—though he did manage a flat-footed flip off the diving board at head coach Dabo Swinney's pool—which means he needs something to charge him up. And this brings us to Clemson's 40-yard dash timing session in July.
It was the position of Carlos Watkins, the fifth-year senior tackle and bedrock of the Tigers' defensive front, that he was the fastest lineman of the group. He had stated his position, emphatically and unremittingly, for just about a year. It was the position of Wilkins, a former five-star recruit brimming with potential, that Watkins was full of crap. But even as Watkins insisted upon his superiority, again and again, Wilkins remained quiet. I'm going to let him talk, Wilkins thought. And we're going to see.
On testing day at Clemson's indoor facility, Watkins ran a fast first attempt. But the coaches botched the timing, so there was no result, and he had to run again. He recorded a 4.87, a preposterous number for a 305-pound person. He would later contend that the first sprint was even faster, but the second nevertheless was indeed a figure worth boasting about. Then it was Christian Wilkins' turn.
He ran, wheeled around and hurried back to the coaches with the stopwatches.
4.85, they said.
The roughly 20 yards that separated Carlos Watkins from Christian Wilkins at this moment was all Wilkins needed. He immediately began running again, directly toward his linemate. And then Christian Wilkins back-flipped in Carlos Watkins' face.
"He was trying to play it cool," Wilkins says. "But I knew he was hurting a little bit."
Clemson has won 56 games the last five years at least in part due to its ability to sustain personnel losses along its defensive front and resupply it with freshly emergent stars. Another playoff run, starting Saturday night at Auburn, might hinge on repeating that feat. The two likeliest new standouts—one who bided his time, one who had no intention to wait—had a 40-yard dash showdown this summer. But the race was on long before that.
We can begin with a player like Andre Branch, who was the No. 47 prospect in the state of Virginia in the Class of 2007 and who eventually became an All-ACC defensive end in 2011. We can continue to Vic Beasley, the No. 37 player in the state of Georgia in the Class of 2010 and Grady Jarrett, the 41st-best defensive tackle in the country in 2011, and follow the string to Beasley winning ACC defensive player of the year honors in 2014 and Jarrett earning first-team All-ACC plaudits that same season.
We can move on to Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, former four-star recruits, who combined for 49 tackles-for-loss and 24.5 sacks in 2015 before heading to the NFL and prompting the questions about whom the Tigers will turn to next. We can begin to answer by noting that Clemson sought out that most coveted category of recruit—a four- or five-star defensive lineman—and then signed six of them in the last two cycles.
The program began by developing standout players at those positions. Now it collects them. And then the Tigers staff plays them, as soon as they're ready, to prepare for the eventuality that really good players must be replaced by good players in order to make multiple championship runs. "My job is to go recruit somebody to beat you out," Clemson assistant head coach/defensive tackles coach Dan Brooks says. "If we're going to keep climbing this ladder we're going to climb, my job is to recruit somebody to beat you out. It's your job to keep your job."
Sometimes this is more difficult than it should be, for reasons no one expected. The 2013 season opened with Carlos Watkins as a starting defensive lineman for Clemson. He tallied 90 snaps through three games as a sophomore after just 113 total as a freshman, following the natural progression from part-timer to first-stringer. He also represented the natural extension of Brooks' plan to find better and better players: Watkins was a consensus top 100 recruit—not a developmental player like Clemson attracted in the early stages of Swinney's regime, and not a five-star gem like those who came later. But Watkins was good, and on the rise. He was on schedule. And then he sat in the passenger seat of a Dodge Durango on the rainy night of Sept. 21, 2013.
Though what came next is known to most by now, Watkins sits in a meeting room and assures you he still can't comprehend how it happened: His friend and cousin Tajae McMullens, the driver, lost control of the car while making a left hand turn. Seated in the backseat was Dache Gossett, a friend and former teammate at Chase High School in Forest City, N.C. Gossett was a huge Clemson fan, and just that day, Watkins and Gossett had talked about the future, and how Watkins was on track to do everything they imagined he could. But the SUV hydroplaned and slid off the road and hit a telephone pole. The collision knocked Watkins unconscious. He woke up spitting out teeth. He tried to move but discovered that part of the telephone pole had crashed on his legs. Then Watkins looked in the back and saw his friend, Gossett, thrown halfway out of the car and motionless.
"I wanted to leave that place," Watkins says. "That was the only thing I was really thinking: 'Man, just get me out of here.' And then seeing my homie in the backseat, I kind of knew he was already gone. It wasn't nothing horrific. It wasn't any bloodshed. His spinal cord had just snapped. He was kind of back there, laying down. I kind of knew then. I really just wanted to get out."
The pole might have caused irreparable damage were it not for Watkins' well-insulated leg bones. "I guess being big is not bad after all," he says. As it was, Watkins only lost feeling in his legs as he waited for an hour and a half as emergency crews worked to extract him; part of the delay was a wait for Duke Power to shut down service to the area so responders could remove downed power lines on the car. For Watkins, what had been a promising, prompt rise to the top of the Clemson depth chart was interrupted by grim circumstance.
Though he didn't suffer any grave physical injuries—he has scars on his forearm, and he required some physical therapy at the hospital to get his legs functioning properly again—the tragedy and the inactivity precipitated depression. Watkins returned to the team and played in 11 games in 2014, but he only logged 135 snaps and amassed 13 tackles. "I was just so messed up in the head," Watkins says. It wasn't until the Orange Bowl victory following that season—a full year and a half after the accident and his friend's death—that he felt himself again.
"I thought he was lazy," Swinney says. "He just kind of lost his way a little bit, lost that drive. I thought he was complacent. He got that fire back in his gut, and even though we kept encouraging him, I think he was distracted. But you have to understand what all he's been through. I think it took a toll on him."
When defensive tackle D.J. Reader left the program temporarily for personal reasons during 2015 preseason camp, the responsibility of continuing the Tigers' legacy on the line triggered the desire in Watkins that lay dormant after the accident. The season ended with Watkins voted in as a first-team All-ACC defensive lineman, following 69 tackles, eight for a loss and 3.5 sacks.
"I feel like the easiest thing for me to do was quit," he says. "I'm not gong to lie—I knew the guys ahead of me, I didn't feel like I needed to get better or I was going to be a help to the team. I kind of took a backseat. But when the time came for me, I really understood the opportunity that I had. I definitely didn't want to be passed by. It's just something that really kicked in—a worker's mentality. Some days you might not feel like it, but once you get a good workout in, you feel good about yourself. "
Methodically, Watkins became the sort of player with whom Brooks doesn't mind discussing the Outland Trophy. The fifth-year senior concedes he didn't seriously watch film before the accident but has been a devotee since regaining a clear mind. He is already a classic defensive tackle—gobbling up blocks, creating disruption— but now he has enhanced pass-rush abilities on his mind for 2016. Watkins figures his long arms should allow him to escape blocks, and he needs a quicker first step to complement that. He cites the 10-yard split in his 40-yard dash as reason for optimism: A year ago, he says it was a "terrible" 1.81. This summer it was a 1.69.
"The confidence from last year was huge for him," Swinney says. "He's got his swag back. Maybe that's a better way to say it: He lost his swag. But I think he's got his swag back."
The player whose mind was clouded now dances before 5 a.m. workouts. He tries always to exude good vibes. "When you wake up," Watkins says, "it should automatically be a good day." He has a new son, born May 2, who laughs and smiles when his Daddy smiles. His name his Christopher. He is named after Dache Christopher Gossett. It's another way Watkins can honor his late friend, another way he can remind himself not to let Gossett down, another way he can remember what he lost in the best way possible.
So, at last, Carlos Watkins again has many reasons to be happy. He does want to add one more to the list.
"I want to be that guy they game plan for," he says. "That's the kind of season I want. I want the team to worry about me when they step on the field."
The theater people at Suffield (Conn.) Academy are an ambitious lot. There's a little more to their repertoire than annual retellings of Our Town; in the past, they've performed the Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County. Their website notes that the group won three straight Halo Awards for Best Play from 2013-15, the top honor in Connecticut high school theater. For a performance of Spamalot!, though, they had a few ideas for one of their biggest fans, a couple goofy roles in mind for the student with the wide smile and wider rump. It will go down as one of Christian Wilkins' great life regrets: The time he shied away from a place on center stage. "I was like, I don't want to want to be in one, because I like watching so much," Wilkins says now. "Given the chance again, I definitely would."
Otherwise, he is not apprehensive about being cast as a star. Wilkins came to Clemson as a five-star early enrollee in Jan. 2015, and playing immediately was less a hope than an expectation. That he was an understudy was a matter of experience and depth in front of him; Wilkins recorded 34 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 12 quarterback pressures and two sacks over 453 snaps in 15 games, earning multiple freshman All-America honors. It became clear in the offseason that the Tigers' staff would not limit Wilkins at all in 2016: He cross-trained at both defensive tackle and defensive end because he offered explosiveness that coaches wanted on the field as much as possible, in as many ways as possible.
"Athletic. Fast. Explosive. Can bend. Strong," Swinney says. "There are not many people who can move like he can move at that size." Forget the back flips. That's why Wilkins was the first defensive lineman in program history to catch a pass, a 31-yard reception on a fake punt in the Orange Bowl. It was inspired by Wilkins playing a little catch with Clemson's head coach. "I threw him a few balls and was like, 'This guy, everything's easy to him,'" Swinney says. "He's just one of those guys like a Sammy Watkins where you just quickly go, 'Whoo. OK. That's different.' You got really good players and you got guys just at another level. That's who he is."
Wilkins is also now "Slash," a nickname Swinney applied when Wilkins crashed a February Signing Day press conference and the Clemson coach introduced his burgeoning sophomore as "our D-tackle- slash-receiver- slash-running back-slash-goal-line specialist." (He later added "Slash-talk show host.") "I don't think he cares one bit which (position) it is," Brooks says. "He just wants to be fully prepared, wherever it is. He's the total package—he could do your job, he could do my job. Just ask him."
The sophomore's ascent to stardom may be the most eye-catching in 2016, if only because his room for growth is immense. Clemson coaches noted how Wilkins arrived early for practice and stayed late even as a true freshman, intent on absorbing nuances and unwilling to rely on his natural skill. "I'm fortunate to be as athletic as I am, and that's really helped me a lot," Wilkins says. "But in high school you could be athletic and dominant. Now you really have to play with technique."
That meant concentrating on pad level, staying low, ensuring his steps weren't just quick but quick and correct. "Something as simple as defeating half of a man—I have this gap, staying in that gap, controlling my gap, controlling my man," he says.
"Something as simple as that can go a long way."
He laments that he played around 320 or 325 pounds by the end of last season—"Travel food," Wilkins says. "Every chance we got, I was eating, and I wasn't holding back"—and carrying that much weight was not feasible for a player expected to do double-duty on the edge. So he moderated his intake of fried food and desserts and is now listed at 310 for the opener, though he originally aimed for 300 or 305.
"If I need to go play end, I can do that and still be strong enough and durable enough to play on the inside as well," Wilkins says.
The production now must match the outsize personality, and Wilkins will not tone down his excitement. He celebrates the footrace victories. He brags on his outside shot in pickup basketball. While he does note that teammates run away from his congratulatory head slaps "because they're on the verge of getting a concussion," he insists it is necessary energy. "It's contagious," Wilkins says. Adds Watkins: "He makes a play, you feel like you made it, because it's that intense."
While Watkins arrived as the program built its defensive line production line, Wilkins effectively arrived because of it, inspired by both the college exploits and the NFL trajectory of his predecessors. In a way, this elevates the onus on the sophomore to be a star. That's specifically what he joined Clemson to be.
"I feel like the sky is the limit for me, just being honest," Wilkins says.
He does have an eye for spotlights. Twice, Wilkins says he managed to secure a spot to see his idol, Strahan, at Live! With Kelly and Michael in New York when it was still Live! With Kelly and Michael. He wasn't a guest, of course, just another face in the crowd. But he also has a good idea how to get from the one place to the other.
Someone must be next. That is why the former Clemson defensive line standouts call or text or cajole current players in person when they return to campus. That is why, on the first day of two-a-day practices during the 2015 preseason, assistant coach Marion Hobby walked into the defensive ends meeting room and was greeted with a question: Guess who just called? Beasley, in the midst of his first NFL training camp, reached out and offered an encouraging, impromptu reminder of the legacy he expected to be upheld. "It's something we never talk about," Hobby says. "But I'm sure those guys are speaking to (current players) like, 'Hey man, we got something going, don't step back, don't be the weak links.' It's a trickle effect."
Someone, indeed, must be next. And, actually, during that infamous 40-yard dash testing—or really even before it—Watkins and Wilkins already could tell who the next one was.
Dexter Lawrence is a 6' 5", 340-pound freshman from Wake Forest, N.C. who arrived on campus in January. He was the consensus No. 2 recruit in the nation, as highly rated as any player Swinney's staff has lured to Death Valley. "Dexter reminds me of nobody I've ever seen," the Clemson head coach says. "He's an amazing young talent." And so while a couple of his elders were jawing over their 40 times, a gigantic freshman who had been on campus for mere months lined up and ran his own sprint.
Lawrence recorded a 4.9.
And he promptly declared himself the fastest player on the team, pound for pound.
"It's like, Dexter, you're 360 pounds," Wilkins says, embellishing for effect, but perhaps not by much. "You could have ran it backwards and you probably would've been the fastest pound for pound."
There are plenty of candidates to be the next great Clemson defensive lineman, and some of them are certainly far ahead of a first-year player who defies description but has not taken a live snap yet. Wilkins calls Lawrence a man-child. He calls him an immovable object. And he notes that Lawrence doesn't know everything about everything just yet. Teaching him the nuances, bringing him along, helping him perfect his craft -- that is a job that falls to guys like Carlos Watkins and Christian Wilkins. It's their burden to ensure that when they are gone from Clemson, there is always another.