CLEMSON, S.C. — Versatile defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence was thrilled last year when fellow linemen and best friends Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant opted to come back to Clemson rather than go to the NFL draft.
Sure, they had a chance to be the best defensive line group in Clemson history and win a second national title. And yes, it meant Lawrence wouldn’t get as many double teams as he may have had they left. But more importantly, he didn’t have to spread himself as thin off the field.
“That relieved a lot of stress because we’ve got a lot of young guys on the team, and I couldn’t be in the D-ends and D-tackles room at the same time,” Lawrence said last week at Clemson’s pro day. “It was them [Bryant and Ferrell] holding the D-ends down and Christian and I holding the tackles down.”
That, in a nutshell, is the recent history of Clemson’s defensive line. One group of soon-to-be NFLers mentors the next: from Gaines Adams to Ricky Sapp to Jarvis Jenkins and Da’Quan Bowers to Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett to D.J. Reader and Shaq Lawson and Carlos Watkins to this quartet that will be drafted next month.
Last week’s pro day could serve as an ostensible recruiting video for Clemson’s next generation of four- and five-star defensive linemen. Every NFL team was represented with three head coaches and three other general managers in attendance. Now three of Clemson’s top linemen—Ferrell, Wilkins and Lawrence—could go in the first round of next month’s draft with a fourth—Bryant—joining them as early as Day 2.
This is a group that’s been inseparable since Lawrence joined it in 2016. They’ve lived together, broken into Clemson Memorial Stadium together and dressed together as the Power Rangers. Last Thursday as part of one last hurrah, Ferrell had Power Rangers-themed headbands specially made for six of the defensive linemen: Wilkins in white, Bryant in red, Lawrence in pink, Ferrell in green, defensive tackle Albert Huggins in neon green and defensive end Chris Register in black.
“Before we stepped on the field, we were friends off it,” Ferrell said. “It’s a blessing that we generated a love for each other where, if we didn’t play football we’d be the best of friends regardless. That’s what really helps us. When you carry that onto the field there’s no jealousy, envy or snaking people out. You want for him what you want for yourself. It’s really crazy and something you can’t understand until you’re really out there and experiencing that.”
Dan Brooks helped recruit most of this crew to Clemson during his tenure as defensive tackles coach from 2008 until his retirement following the 2016 national title-winning season. (Marion Hobby, the defensive ends coach for most of their recruitments, is now the Dolphins’ defensive line coach.) Brooks says Clemson always looks for linemen with good hip and ankle flexibility, along with great effort and a “nastiness of attitude.” He’s figured coaches can teach players how to be better technicians and the strength coaches can get them stronger. But the kind of person the player is, is important to Clemson and head coach Dabo Swinney.
“Something that Coach Swinney challenged the staff with from the very beginning was not only did we want good players but we wanted good people,” Brooks said. “Different guys handle different players. [Swinney] doesn’t handle that outlaw guy very good, so to say. But he’s had a lot of success with bringing in guys and saying, ‘Hey this is the way we’re going to do things.’”
Any follower of college football by now knows the culture at Clemson. Swinney has enhanced the program to a national brand while consistently and constantly espousing the family-like atmosphere. You’d be hard-pressed to find a former player who’s not a believer in what Swinney is teaching.
But the proof is also in the results on the field. Four straight trips to the College Football Playoff, with national championships in the 2016 and 2018 seasons, have made Clemson the greatest challenger to Alabama’s dynasty. In theory, the more draft classes like this one he churns out, the longer Swinney and Clemson will stay at the top.
“It’s part of the equation,” Swinney said. “It’s not the part. It’s a part. All young people have aspirations and goals and dreams, and certainly you want to help them achieve all those things. To have a good track record definitely is a part of that. Not only that you can evaluate well but you can develop guys.
“Especially for us because we don’t sign junior college players, so you better be right on the evaluation side and you better be able to develop guys, because we don’t get these quick fixes.”
Since 2014, the Tigers have had six defensive linemen go in the draft. Of the six—Beasley, Jarrett, Lawson, Kevin Dodd, Reader and Watkins—only Dodd is no longer in the NFL. This year’s group could see five or six linemen drafted in April.
One common thread NFL teams have indicated to the MMQB is that these players are acing their team interviews. Lawrence is upfront about his PED suspension that kept him out of the College Football Playoff (he maintains he never knowingly ingested a banned substance and doesn’t know how he tested positive). Ferrell, Wilkins and Bryant are naturally gregarious. All seem humble and loquacious.
“All they want to hear you do is tell the truth, because nine times out of 10 when they ask you a question, they already know the answer,” Bryant said. “They just want to see if you’re the type of guy who’s going to make an excuse, lie about it or tell the truth.”
Some credit here goes to longtime Clemson sports information director Tim Bourret, who did countless one-on-one training with top Clemson players from the time they were freshmen. He preferred more personal sessions rather than big media trainings because a player like quarterback Trevor Lawrence won’t get the same sort of questions as others. (Some of his advice to his QB, by the way: Always show respect to those who came before you, like Deshaun Watson.) That continued with current SID Ross Taylor, who made Dexter Lawrence available to the media during the College Football Playoff to explain his PED suspension as best he could.
But being selfless like this group of guys has been? That has come naturally. Bourret remembers Wilkins being tardy to his interview session on the first day of spring practice because he was staying late at the sled to give tips to Lawrence, then a freshman. Huggins, a former first-team All-American out of high school and the top player in South Carolina in his recruiting class, got just four starts in his final two seasons at Clemson but had no complaints last week. Bryant played the final two months of the season with a torn pec but kept playing to chase a second title with his teammates, opting instead for post-season surgery that held him out of combine and pro day drills this month.
“He never showed his pain,” Lawrence said of Bryant. “He was practicing. It was just different. Sometimes I thought he was faking it.”
It’s not all pats on the head and dressing up as Power Rangers. Like brothers, they fight all the time. Ferrell remembers one off-field incident that led to him icing out Wilkins for a few days. But it was all love at their final on-field workout session together, and they’ve built bonds that will last a lifetime.
Until draft day.
For Wilkins, he doesn’t care where he’s drafted or which of his teammates get drafted before him. He just can’t get drafted after Ferrell.
“I will be the most upset human being in the world. Like Dex? Alright, cool. Congrats, Dex. Love you and move on. But I just don’t want to deal with Cle being drafted before me. I hope I go one pick before Cle just to rub it in his face.
“He’ll show me his check or something. I know he’ll find a way to rub it in. I just know Clelin and his personality. It’s not going to be good for me or Dex or Austin if Cle gets drafted before us.”
But whenever they’re all drafted, which could be by the end of Day 2, folks in Clemson will be thrilled to have their new crop of linemen off to the NFL. Just in time to make room for the next generation.
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