TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Christian Wilkins wears a jersey number better suited for a defensive back or a running back than a 310-pound defensive lineman.
Clemson's star sophomore is nimble enough that the Tigers will line him up in the backfield and have even thrown him a couple passes, but that's not why he dons No. 42.
''The short answer is to honor my late grandfather, who passed away six years ago,'' Wilkins said Saturday. ''He was born in 1942.''
With his stellar play and camera-friendly presence, Wilkins has quickly become one of Clemson's most notable players, heading into Monday night's College Football Playoff national championship game against No. 1 Alabama.
Fame gave way to notoriety this week after a video clip of him getting a little too grabby with an Ohio State player during the Fiesta Bowl went viral. Wilkins has apologized to Curtis Samuel for the incident. Alabama tackle Cam Robinson earlier this week gave a warning that Wilkins would be wise to not try that move on him, but Wilkins stands out on film for far more than that. A third-team All-American, he is one of the most talented defensive linemen in the country.
Wilkins was expected to play defensive tackle this season as he did last year, when as a freshman he became a steady a contributor to Clemson's first run to the College Football Playoff national championship. But when defensive end Austin Bryant broke his foot in preseason, Clemson coaches were left trying to fill a hole. The solution was to slide Wilkins to defensive end and rely on 340-pound freshman Dexter Lawrence to play more in the middle.
Wilkins adapted so well to defensive end - and Lawrence was so good inside - that even when Bryant got healthy the lineup did not change.
Tigers defensive tackles coach Dan Brooks, who coached at Tennessee for 15 seasons before coming Clemson, compares Wilkins to former Volunteers star and New York Jets Pro Bowler Shaun Ellis.
Wilkins has the athleticism and discipline to play outside, where offenses often try to confuse defenders, along with the strength and quickness to deal with the double teams that come with playing inside. Wilkins can even drop into coverage if necessary. Or go out for pass, as he did last year, converting a first down on a fake punt with a 31-yard reception against Oklahoma. This season, Wilkins has a 1-yard touchdown catch to his credit.
''He's not the normal guy,'' Brooks said. ''Not a lot of 300-pounders can do that.''
As those Fiesta Bowl hijinks showed, Wilkins can be a little goofy. But he also has moments where he exudes a maturity that makes him a team leader as an underclassman.
This season he decided to room with wide receiver Deon Cain, a classmate who was suspended for the College Football Playoff last year for a violation of team rules.
''I just felt like I, you know, I could have been a just been able to help him out,'' Wilkins said. ''Just be a good teammate to him and be a good friend.''
Cain said Wilkins has been a great roommate.
''He cooks a lot. That's the main thing I like about him,'' Cain said. ''He's a great dude. Humble and funny guy.''
Wilkins grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, and went to Suffield Academy, a boarding school in Connecticut that he credits with helping him grow up.
''Really opened up my eyes to a lot of different things and what the world had to offer me,'' Wilkins said. ''People from all over the world. You learn a lot of different things being in that environment and around the type of culture. It helps prepare you for your life.''
The most difficult part of Wilkins' life was losing his grandfather, Eurie Stamp, on Jan. 5, 2011.
Stamp was shot and killed by Framingham police officer during a drug raid of his home. A statement from the Middlesex District Attorney's Office said officers were looking for two males, including Stamp's stepson, after receiving a tip about cocaine being sold at his address.
The statement said Stamp was shot while lying on the floor when an officer, who was attempting to check him for weapons, lost balance while stepping over Stamp and his gun went off.
Stamp was Wilkins' most exuberant fan and one of the most influential people in his life.
''He was always around, always there for me, just an overall good guy,'' Wilkins said. ''There's a lot of reasons. You would need a lot longer interview than this one. He's just so impactful in my life.''
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