CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney did a double take the first day of the offseason, early morning workouts last month when he saw starting defensive linemen Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant grinding away with teammates.
Many, including Swinney, expected the trio of all-Atlantic Coast Conference linemen to be training for the NFL combine after giving up college for the pros. Instead, the three all came back to the Tigers and led the way Wednesday as Clemson opened spring workouts.
“They’re back with a purpose,” Swinney said.
And perhaps a chip on their shoulders.
All three were projected by many NFL mock draft boards to be first-round material, Wilkins and Ferrell even popping up in several top 10s as can’t miss players at the next level. Instead, none of them got first-round grades, Swinney said, meaning they could see their stellar futures muddled by middle-round selections.
The 6-foot-4, 300-pound Wilkins and 6-5, 260-pound Ferrell were first-team all-ACC picks this season. Bryant, at 6-5, 265, was named to the second team. Add in Clemson’s other starter in massive and nimble (340 pounds) tackle Dexter Lawrence and the Tigers have a chance to see all of them go in the early rounds of the 2019 NFL draft .
Indeed, one internet projector has the quartet all going among the first 24 picks two drafts from now.
Clemson was tied with Southern Cal for most sacks last season at 46.
Ferrell led the team with 9 1/2 sacks with Bryant right behind at 8 1/2. Wilkins had 4 1/2 sacks. Bryant topped the Tigers with 15 1/2 of the team’s tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
“I prayed on it and I’m happy with my decision,” Ferrell said. “I weighed it back and forth and I’m excited to get going.”
Bryant was not bitter when his NFL grade came back outside the first round. He said he views it as an opportunity to max out his physical potential. “I thought if I came back and put the work in I could help myself,” he said. “I can leave a legacy in a place like this.”
The three took their time in choosing with Bryant and Ferrell announcing at the team’s final banquet the Saturday before the Monday deadline for entering the NFL draft. Wilkins, who has graduated, took things down the final hours before deciding for a final year with the Tigers — and giving Clemson opponents another season of figuring out to stop perhaps the fiercest front line in college football.
“They all know they’ve got the chance to do something special,” Swinney said.
Anything this season would simply add to their successful resume. They’ve all been part of three straight ACC titles and CFP playoff appearances. Of course, all were key to Clemson’s dramatic, 35-31 victory over No. 1 Alabama to win the 2016 national championship.
The Tigers hoped to make it two straight national crowns this year, but fell 24-6 to this year’s national champ Alabama at the Sugar Bowl in the CFP semis.
Wilkins believes that loss will serve as motivation to take things further this season, much the way Clemson’s 2015 title game loss to Alabama infused the Tigers’ drive to the title the next year.
Bryant was most surprised when Wilkins returned. “I thought if anybody left, he’d be the one to leave,” Bryant said. “But he didn’t think it was right. He thought he could improve himself as well. I know he can do because we’ve got a big ceiling.”
One that could land all four of Clemson’s defensive line starters at the top of NFL draft boards come 2019.
Ferrell hears from former teammates like safety Van Smith and receiver Deon Cain who gave up their eligibility for the NFL draft who tease him about having to go through offseason training and spring drills once more.
“I’m happy for them,” Ferrell said. “They made the best decision for them. I made the best decision for me.”