Long before manning the middle of the vaunted "Blitzburgh" defense and emerging as a 1990s All-Decade selection with Pittsburgh, Levon Kirkland terrorized opposing offenses as one of the nation's best players starring for Clemson at the collegiate level.
Though the program has since reached even greater heights with six consecutive college football playoff appearances, the Tigers won at least nine games during Kirkland's four years on campus and went 3-1 in bowl games. After redshirting in 1987, the massive 270-pound linebacker played a critical role in the team's on-field success, racking up 243 tackles, 19.0 sacks, and 40 tackles for loss in his career, which culminated with a First-Team All-American selection in 1991.
By the time Kirkland hung up his cleats for good after the 2002 season, he had amassed over 1,000 tackles, 19.5 sacks, and 11 interceptions in 11 seasons with the Steelers, Seahawks, and Eagles. Following retirement, he returned to Clemson to finish his sociology degree and also helped coordinate minority recruitment in admissions for the university. Over the past decade-plus, he served as a coach at the high school, college, and NFL level, most recently spending time with the Cardinals and Bengals.
Now nearly two decades removed from when he last strapped on a helmet and shoulder pads, Kirkland remains heavily invested in the Clemson program. Inducted into Clemson's Ring of Honor in 2018, he now hosts the Bleav on Clemson Football podcast, where he dishes his insight on everything Tigers, including prospects preparing to enter the NFL draft.
As one of college football's blue blood programs, Clemson is no stranger to having multiple players selected in the first round. Since 2015, seven former Tigers have heard their name called in the first 32 picks. This year, quarterback Trevor Lawrence will become the latest to join that group, as the former All-American is expected to be the first pick to the Jaguars.
But Clemson's success developing NFL talent has hardly been limited to the first round, particularly at receiver. Last season, the Bengals selected Tee Higgins in the second round and he produced 67 receptions for 908 yards as a rookie. One year earlier, the Raiders snagged Hunter Renfrow in the fifth round and he has contributed 105 receptions for 1,261 yards and six touchdowns in two seasons.
Speaking with Kirkland recently on the Locked On Seahawks podcast, from his informed vantage point, he expects trend should only continue in the 2021 NFL Draft. The former All-Pro selection sees Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell as two talented receivers who could be picked in the second round or later and have a chance to make an immediate splash in the league.
Interestingly, Kirkland envisions Seattle being an excellent landing spot for both players slotted behind DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. Specifically, he's intrigued by the thought of Rodgers catching passes from Russell Wilson at the next level.
"This kid is a workhorse," Kirkland said. "He can catch all the balls, he can run patterns very well, he has great speed. He's kind of built like a running back in a lot of ways, so in the open field, he's dynamic. I think anybody that gets Amari is going to be pleasantly surprised how good of a wide receiver he really is and I think people have been sleeping on him."
After spending his first three seasons at Clemson buried on the depth chart behind several other future NFL receivers, including Renfrow and Higgins, the 5-foot-9, 212-pound Rodgers broke out in 2020. More than a year removed from a torn ACL suffered in spring ball prior to his junior year, he caught 77 passes for 1,020 yards and scored seven touchdowns.
Rodgers also remained an integral part of the Tigers' special teams units. For his career, he returned 68 punts for 529 yards and a touchdown, adding further versatility to his resume as he enters the NFL.
Coming off an impressive senior season, Rodgers earned an invite to the Reese's Senior Bowl and held his own in Mobile in late January, turning heads during one-on-one drills against several of the nation's best corners.
"He got hurt the year before, but if you look at his tape, you see the explosive plays that he can make," Kirkland added. "I've seen him take a little swing pass and he takes it all the way 80 yards for a touchdown. Whether you're in the ACC or not, that's impressive."
Though he didn't offer as many specifics, Kirkland also vouched for Powell, another late-bloomer who took advantage of additional playing time by establishing career-highs in receptions (55), receiving yards (882), and touchdowns (7) as a senior. While overshadowed to an extent by Rodgers, he earned Third-Team All-ACC honors as one of Lawrence's top weapons on the outside.
Like Rodgers, the 6-foot, 204-pound Powell offers yards after the catch potential at the next level and he excels at making contested catches in traffic, which would make him another appealing option for Seattle potentially on early day three.
Switching gears to the trenches, Kirkland doesn't see Rodgers and Powell as the only Clemson prospects who could be on the Seahawks radar on draft weekend. If the team wants to find a potential successor to Duane Brown or Brandon Shell at one of the tackle spots, Jackson Carmen may provide the answer down the road.
As Kirkland mentioned, he views the 6-foot-5, 317-pound Carmen as a bit of a developmental project, indicating he thinks the tackle will be available later in the draft as a result. Other scouts have speculated he might need to move inside to guard in the NFL, depending on scheme fit.
But a team like Seattle that doesn't have an immediate need for a tackle would be a perfect situation for him to learn from Brown and coach Mike Solari before eventually working his way into the lineup.
"He came into Clemson with a lot of stars [as a recruit] and really actually played two years as a solid left tackle." Kirkland elaborated. "I don't know if he's quite there, but I think with maybe one or two years, he could be a very solid player. Smart guy, athletic guy, a guy who can move. You can probably take him later on."
With a league-low three picks, including one in the first three rounds, the Seahawks will have limited flexibility heading into this week's draft. General manager John Schneider will have his work cut out for him attempting to recoup a few picks after making trades for Jamal Adams, Carlos Dunlap, and most recently Gabe Jackson.
But given the organization's preference for drafting players from Power 5 conferences - 18 of their 19 picks during the past two years played in the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, or ACC - regardless of how many picks they wind up making, it wouldn't be a surprise at all to see Seattle heed Kirkland's advice and draft Rodgers, Powell, or Carmen to help fortify the offense with intriguing talent.
Listen to the entire Levon Kirkland interview here.