This story appears in the Aug. 13, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Clelin Ferrell has an answer simmering just beneath the surface. He only needs to hear the question. Anything including the phrase “Power Rangers” or “greatest defensive line ever” will trigger the response. He’s going to get this off his chest, right now, on the record.
“I’m really kind of just done with the whole hype about it,” the 6'5" junior defensive end says. “I’m tired of talking about it.”
Junior defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence tries to jump in. “Being compared to other people. . . .”
But Ferrell is on a roll. “I’m tired of talking about our defensive line and how great we’re supposed to be,” he says, cutting off his 6'4", 340-pound teammate. “I’m just over it. People just assume stuff, and they don’t know what it takes. They don’t know how much work you put in.”
To Ferrell, this praise is an insult.
The fact that Ferrell, senior tackle Christian Wilkins and senior end Austin Bryant decided against entering the draft—despite being likely first-round selections—and returned to Clemson doesn’t ensure that they’ll have the most dominant season ever for a college defensive line. They’ve learned what it takes to be great from every sprint, every squat, every power clean, every drill since they arrived on campus. Those lessons were reinforced last February during drills as strength coaches screamed for more! more! while videos played of Syracuse and Alabama players celebrating last season’s victories over Clemson.
“For us to be the greatest defensive line ever or the greatest defensive line at Clemson, we’ve got to go out and prove it,” Bryant says. “This is a results business. If we don’t produce, the same people who told us we were the best ever will be the same people who tell us we were the worst ever.”
For now, everyone loves their story. Three of the Power Rangers (as the group calls itself in a tribute to Wilkins’s favorite childhood show), passed on millions to chase a fourth consecutive ACC title and a second national title in three seasons. (Lawrence will be eligible to go pro after this season.) In July, media covering the league gave the four Clemson starters every spot on the first-team preseason All-ACC defensive line. At this point, anything short of this line sacking every opposing quarterback 10 times as Clemson rolls through an undefeated season and wins a national title might be a disappointment. If the Tigers struggle, as nearly every team will at some point, will the attention transfer to the similarly productive defensive lines at Ohio State and Alabama? Perhaps the football hipsters will sip their cloudy IPAs, stroke their beards and declare that the Power Rangers are played out, man. I told you the real D-line talent was at Mississippi State!
Yet all the praise may be deserved.
It’s a popular exercise at this time of year to proclaim roughly 100 college football players as likely first-rounders even though the first round only has 32 selections. Still, it will be shocking if, barring injury or Lawrence or Ferrell deciding to stay another season, all four Clemson starting defensive linemen aren’t picked in the first two rounds. And while it would be extraordinary and unprecedented, it wouldn’t be surprising if all four are selected in the first round.
The bulk of college football’s stars this season will start each play with a hand in the dirt. There are spectacular individual talents (Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver, Michigan defensive end Rashan Gary) and potentially dominant groups (Wisconsin’s offensive line, Georgia’s offensive line, Ohio State’s defensive line), but no single unit boasts the combination of experience and skill that Clemson’s defensive line does.
The massive Lawrence runs like a man 80 pounds lighter. He can overpower a pair of double-teaming offensive linemen or he can chase down a back. Lawrence played at Wake Forest High, near Raleigh, with Stanford tailback Bryce Love. Love may be the Heisman Trophy favorite, but Lawrence may be the better all-around athlete. Since he couldn’t enter the draft, Lawrence became a sounding board for those who could. “These guys are all super self-aware,” he says. “In the group message, they were saying what they needed to do. I was more of a realist. I was just trying to pick their brains. I was asking, ‘Are you ready to be in that type of environment? Are you mature enough?’ ”
The 6'5", 260-pound Ferrell, who led Clemson in sacks last season with 9 1/2, is a classic, even-front edge rusher—long, slippery and quick. He’s also strong enough to lock out an offensive tackle and chuck him aside as he chases the quarterback. The redshirt junior was the first of the draft-eligible trio to decide to return. When Ferrell reported his decision on the Power Rangers’ group text in early January, Bryant didn’t believe him. A face-to-face meeting soon after convinced Bryant that Ferrell wasn’t kidding. “We definitely tried to make our own decisions,” Bryant says. “But I’m not going to lie. One person deciding definitely tips the glass in the other direction.”
Later that day, the 6'5", 265-pound Bryant informed teammates and coaches that he also planned to return. In this group of elite athletes, Bryant is the freakiest. His 8 1/2 sacks last season seem routine compared with a pair of plays he made against Virginia Tech on Sept. 30; his fellow Rangers still speak of them in hushed tones. There was the one-handed interception in the fourth quarter, which, for a moment, looked like the Air Jordan logo with a football; and in the third quarter he split out—essentially playing cornerback—to cover a receiver and destroyed a bubble screen. (This was no accident: defensive coordinator Brent Venables knew Bryant could cover a receiver, and the Tigers called timeout before the play to get Bryant on the field.)
After Bryant and Ferrell decided to return, the only question was whether Wilkins would complete the set.
When Wilkins was being recruited by Clemson as a senior at Suffield (Conn.) Academy, he called coach Dabo Swinney and rattled off compliments: Thank you for recruiting me. I loved Clemson. I loved everything about it. Swinney knew a “but” was coming—butI’m going to Ohio State/Penn State/Stanford. Wilkins knew that, too. That’s why after he said but, he let it linger a bit. Then he told Swinney he wanted to be a Tiger.
Wilkins’s joke set the tone for years of high jinks. While the linemen had already adopted their Mighty Morphin prepractice routine, it was Wilkins who persuaded them to don Spandex. On Halloween 2016, Wilkins (white), Ferrell (green), tackle Carlos Watkins (black), end Jabril Robinson (blue) and Lawrence (pink) visited the houses of all their coaches. “He looks good in pink,” Wilkins told reporters when asked about Lawrence’s costume. “A loooot of material. A lot of pink.” Defensive tackles coach Dan Brooks couldn’t figure out why his golden retriever, Buddy, wouldn’t stop barking. Then he saw 1,500 pounds of Power Rangers strolling down the sidewalk. Brooks, who helped recruit Emmitt Smith to Florida and also coached a pair of first-round picks (John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth, who went No. 9 and No. 15, respectively, in 2002) at Tennessee, immediately recognized the handiwork of Wilkins, who in two seasons had become one of his favorite players. Wilkins punctuated Brooks’s final game—a 35–31 win against Alabama in the national title game—by jumping and landing in a split on the confetti-strewn field. Not long after, Wilkins cried in Brooks’s office when he learned his position coach planned to retire.
Wilkins is a 300-pound unicorn born to line up on the outside shoulder of a guard but capable of playing end, as he did as a sophomore in 2016 when Bryant broke his right foot. At tackle, Wilkins can push the pocket or twist outside to chase the quarterback or bat down a pass. As a freshman, before he won a starting job on the line, coaches asked him to call protection assignments on the punt team. At the 2015 Orange Bowl, the Tigers faked a punt on fourth down and Wilkins caught a pass from punter Andy Teasdall for a 31-yard gain.
Wilkins is also a serious student who graduated from Clemson with a B.A. in communications in December 2017. Like quarterback Deshaun Watson before him, Wilkins intended to get his degree as quickly as possible. Unlike Watson, who always planned to go to the NFL after three seasons of college, Wilkins didn’t enter Clemson with an exit plan. And he has enjoyed his time at Clemson so much that it reminded Brooks of another player who had faced a similar decision. “That’s how Peyton [Manning] was,” Brooks says. “He just liked college.” Wilkins sought advice from Brooks and from other coaches. He sought advice from his linemates. “He was the worst,” Lawrence says. “He was going back and forth. He’s so hard on himself.”
As the Jan. 15 deadline approached, Ferrell sensed what Wilkins’s decision would be. “I knew he was coming back,” Ferrell says. “Christian isn’t the type to wait until the last day and then decide to leave. If he’s going to train for something, he’s going to want as much time as possible to do that.”
Wilkins called Swinney as the deadline hovered. He opened with a string of superlatives. I’ve loved my time at Clemson. It’s been an amazing experience. I’ve grown so much as a person. Swinney waited for the “but.” When it finally came, Wilkins said, “Coach, that’s why I’ve decided to come back.” Swinney had fallen for it again. “He actually got me. I was really expecting him to go,” he says. “That’s just kind of the norm. I should have known, because Christian is never with the norm. He beats his own drum.”
Wilkins has no regrets about staying. “These past six months have been the most fun I’ve had since I’ve been at Clemson,” he says. He loves the slower pace of grad-student life. He and the other Rangers frequently drag highly touted freshmen defensive ends Xavier Thomas and K.J. Henry out to the field for extra work—just as Watkins and Shaq Lawson did to them when they were freshmen. Wilkins got a job as a substitute teacher for $80 a day in nearby Oconee County. He has worked with kindergartners who have their entire lives ahead of them and high schoolers who “think they’ve got the world figured out.”
Wilkins and the Rangers have figured out their world. When they decided to return, the hype exploded. The locker room and the practice field became a refuge where the group isn’t the greatest defensive line of all time but just four friends playing a game. “All these people want a piece of you, want to ask a million of the same questions,” Wilkins says. But when he’s with Bryant, Ferrell and Lawrence? It’s still Morphin Time. “It’s going to be my last [season],” Wilkins says. “So I can just take a step back. Even when they’re talking trash to me, I can appreciate it. It’s all love at the end of the day. These guys really care for me, and I care for them.”