Watching Wilkins: Clemson lineman ready to be face of Tigers
By PETE IACOBELLI
CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins usually finds the spotlight, and it doesn't seem to matter if he's on the field or off it. It doesn't even matter if he is seeking the attention or not.
Maybe it's his full-out love of Power Rangers, the big man showcasing his nimbleness and flexibility with his post title-game dance moves or his unseemly grope of an Ohio State player in last year's national semifinal.
This season, Wilkins will be front and center on the field as the face of the national champions.
The dynamic, 310-pound junior has played a major role his first two seasons with the Tigers - literally and figuratively. Now, he's the go-to-guy for a team that lost plenty of star power from last year's title run.
"I'm totally prepared for that," said Wilkins, the bearded, fun-loving bear of Clemson's defense.
Wilkins arrived at Clemson from Massachusetts, a talented gem from an area often dominated by pro sports and not much college football. He blended in immediately with the Tigers, first as a backup who made 84 tackles his freshman season. His most memorable moment that year was in the Orange Bowl when Wilkins caught a 31-yard pass off a fake punt to spark Clemson's 37-17 victory over Oklahoma that sent the Tigers to the national title game in 2015.
Last year, Wilkins shifted to defensive end because of injuries and inexperience and excelled on the outside with 13 tackles for loss including 3.5 sacks.
Wilkins was part of Clemson's jumbo package and became the program's first lineman with a TD from an offensive set with his 1-yard scoring catch against Troy.
Wilkins was mentored by older, now-departed Clemson players like linebacker Ben Boulware and tackle Carlos Watkins. Now, he's ready to lead.
Clemson also lost most of its playmaking, offensive stars led by quarterback Deshaun Watson, who had been the face of the Tigers the past two-plus years - leaving a void that Wilkins plans to fill.
"I always kind of embraced being a leader, now there might be a little bit more weight on my shoulder," Wilkins said. "Now, it's like I'm that guy."
Coach Dabo Swinney believes he is.
"Christian is a worker. You know, he's out there after practice every day. He practices hard. He's a coachable kid," Swinney said. "He's not a guy that's going to take, to pick his spots. He's going to bring it every day."
Wilkins also brings his goofball personality to the field every day.
Last season, Wilkins rallied his teammates - well, four of them anyway - to dress up like the Power Rangers for Halloween and visit coaches' homes.
He gained some dubious attention last December when he stuck his hand in the groin area of Buckeyes tailback Curtis Samuel. Wilkins later apologized.
Wilkins was close to unblockable in Clemson's 35-31 win over No. 1 Alabama for the title. He knocked down two passes and was continually in quarterback Jalen Hurts' face throughout.
But it was after that Wilkins showed his best moves, a championship dance that included not one, but two, full-out splits - something most men his size could not accomplish.
Wilkins' postgame performance delighted social media with numerous memes dedicated to his moves. Wilkins doesn't mind a bit, as long as you also pay attention to how hard he works to improve.
"I'm very comfortable with who I am. What you see is what you get," Wilkins said. "I'm not trying to be anybody else, but at the same time I'm about my business every day, try to get better, allow what I do to encourage my teammates to be the best they can be."
His teammates are ready to follow the gregarious, affable Wilkins.
Defensive end Clelin Ferrell - he's part of the Power Rangers group - said Wilkins is a natural leader that gets the Tigers going.
He knows a lot and is ready to help," Ferrell said. "We know we can count on him."
The Tigers are ready for that, too.
More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org
Updated July 17, 2017