Its Legend Cemented, Clemson's Defensive Line Revels in a Performance Worth the Wait
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Christian Wilkins is normally searching for a quarterback. During the on-field hysteria of Clemson’s stunning 44–16 win over Alabama in the national championship game, he needed to find the stage. He weaved through the crowd, parting the orange sea with his 6'4", 315-pound frame, ducking reporters, sliding by photographers, quickly embracing fans and still searching for that stage, the one he could see in the distance, at the other end of a confetti-covered football field. He was supposed to be on that stage, standing atop it to accept the title, to hold that oblong gold trophy. He’d earned it. He had bypassed the NFL, the last of three high-profile Clemson defensive linemen to make that decision last January, all of them—Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant—deciding to return for another year with an express purpose: standing on that stage. Now, if he could just get to it.
He bumped into former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, then had a long talk with an old friend from the other side, Alabama defensive back Deionte Thompson. He ran over to quickly sing the alma mater and chant to “Tiger Rag”, Clemson’s fight song, with legions of orange-clad fans still in their seats. And then it was back to that stage. He was so close now that he could see those gesturing for him to join them. Come on Christian! What are you doing, man!? Get here now! He was almost there, just 20 yards from the payoff to all that hard work—those 5:30 a.m. workouts in the spring, the uphill running in 105° heat in the summer—when he ran smack into a waist-high barrier, one he dared not hurdle with the start of his NFL career mere months away.
Blocked from vertical movement, he slid horizontally down the guard rail, then behind a temporary set of bleachers designed for photographers, and then under yellow caution tape, where a free path to the stage existed—except for the armed security guards and police officers. They weren’t stopping Christian Wilkins and didn’t try, and so the heartbeat of this Clemson team rushed toward his prize. He climbed the stairs, stood on the stage, did a dancing jig and was so excited that he attempted to pry the microphone out of ESPN personality Rece Davis’s hands, booming a message to the nation and to those inside Levi’s Stadium: “Best. Team. Ever.”
Who is to argue? Maybe 2018 Clemson is the best team ever. They suffocated one of college football’s most explosive offenses and carved through a defense of five-star talent. They buried a Nick Saban-coached college football team in a way that hasn’t been done since Steve Spurrier and his Florida Gators whipped Saban and LSU back in the early 2000s. The offense will get the glory, racking up the final 37 points on the strength of its history-making true freshman quarterback (the first in 33 years to lead a team to a title), their sophomore running back (Travis Etienne had three total touchdowns) and their freakish receivers (freshman Justyn Ross and sophomore Tee Higgins traded nominees for catch of the night). But if this is the best team ever, it’s because it has the best defensive line ever.
After all, Wilkins, Ferrell and Bryant, who earned first- or second-round NFL draft projections last January, delayed their riches one year in a striking collective move only rarely seen before. “I think they lived their legacy,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “So often guys don’t follow through on that legacy or they leave it, but they’re not living it in the moment. These guys, in every way, in the purest way, actually lived their legacy. As we know, when you leave college, life gets tough. You certainly don’t have the love and cohesion and chemistry and the innocence you do in college. To watch these guys say, ‘No no, we’re not going to be like everybody else [and] chase the money.’ They were rewarded with an amazing year. Talk about putting an exclamation point on it.”
The trio got its prize, that stage, that trophy, the nation’s eyes, a second title in three years and a 55th victory sweetened by who it came against: Saban and his vaunted dynasty. Ferrell joined Wilkins on-stage, and the two each twisted a saliva-covered finger into one of coach Dabo Swinney’s ears, the first Wet Willie in playoff history. Somewhere off in the crowd was Bryant. He never made it to that stage, but it didn’t matter. This trio will be remembered forever. “The best ever. Ain’t much else to be said,” Ferrell said. “No disrespect to Alabama. They’re a very good team, but they talked about them like they were the best team ever. We had to beat the best to be the best.” Ferrell stood on that stage having stripped off his jersey and pads, revealing an undershirt with a message written in black marker: “This is for Dex,” it said.
And to think they did this without one of their most talented players. Nose guard Dexter Lawrence missed a second straight game after failing a drug test, but senior Albert Huggins filled in admirably, and the Tigers’ other superstars clogged running lanes (allowing no running play over 15 yards and no rushing touchdowns) and penetrated the backfield to rack up two sacks and seven overall tackles for loss. The secondary did its part, picking off Heisman Trophy runner-up Tua Tagovailoa twice and returning the first interception for a touchdown on the Crimson Tide’s third offensive snap. Alabama’s 443 total yards don’t tell the whole story. The Tigers stuffed a third-quarter fake field goal, came up with a stop on a crucial fourth-and-four inside their own red zone in the third quarter and then produced a game-sealing goal line stand in the fourth. The Tide had three cracks, all rushes, from the one-yard line, and lost eight yards. And guess who made those tackles? Wilkins got two, on second and third down, and Ferrell got the last, wrangling Tagovailoa on a designed quarterback run and igniting an orange-splashed celebration. “They moved the ball, but we had some crazy good stops,” Venables said. Defensive line coach Todd Bates, nearly choking up about his trio of linemen, said, “They came back for this.” Standing nearby, Wilkins smiles, “We beat the best team ever and no one’s taking it away from us.”
Alabama hasn’t been held to this few points since the 2017 Iron Bowl. Afterward, Venables revealed that he implemented some “new looks” during eight days of practice. The Tigers disguised some coverages, including on that first interception, and they wanted to stay aggressive like they’d been all year. “We really wanted to attack them,” he said. “Had a great eight days of practice. I was worried we didn’t have enough [practice]. [The players] were very communicative that they really liked the game plan.” Afterward, in a celebratory locker room, Venables, standing on a chair, delivered a speech to his defensive unit, finishing the spiel like he always does with a “Roll Dogs”. His defensive players then began woofing like hounds. “Roll dogs,” Huggins says. “It’s just something we say. We’re on a roll. Just how we break it down.”
Wilkins, Ferrell and Bryant howled in the center of it all, a trio of Power Rangers, as the group calls themselves, a tribute to Wilkins’s favorite childhood show. They even dressed in colorful spandex gear during Halloween in 2016. They were superheroes on Monday, too. “That’s part of the culture that Dabo has been able to create,” Clemson AD Dan Radakovich said of the three returning to school last year. “They want to come back here and be a part of the organization. Those guys, Austin, Clelin, Christian, incredible human beings.” Watson, the current Houston Texans quarterback, remembers the old days when these guys were teenagers. “When I was there and they were younger, they were still doing the same thing,” Watson said. “It doesn’t surprise me.”
Afterward, even from Clemson administrators and coaches, a sense of disbelief in the result permeated. A win? Sure, that’s what they expected. A win by 28 points? “Absolutely not,” says Venables. Radakovich served as an administrator at LSU during part of Saban’s tenure in Baton Rouge. Has he ever seen a Saban team get beaten like that? “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it before,” Radakovich said, “but tonight, for tonight, we were the best ever.” Players, meanwhile, didn’t hold back about the Crimson Tide and their haughty reputation. “We came in hearing they were the best team ever,” Ferrell says. “I feel like all of college football is brainwashed, man. It’s a new team everywhere. We feel like we’re the best in college football.”
Wilkins, his time on that stage complete, moved through the crowd while calling his unit. “D-line!” he screamed. “D-line!” The defensive line gathered in a semicircle for a group photo, more than 3,000 pounds of quarterback-seeking beef smiling for the cameras, all of them repeating the same two words: “Best ever.” They can claim history, the first squad to finish 15–0 since Division I split in 1978. “We’re the best ever until somebody does what we did,” Bryant says. More than 30 minutes after that group photo, Wilkins was back searching, this time for the locker room. Those pesky postgame interviews behind him, he sat on the passenger seat of a golf cart, whizzing down the interior tunnel of Levi’s Stadium. Maybe it was the best ride of his life, in the physical sense, having just completed the emotional equivalent. The driver honked the horn to clear a path, and Wilkins saw a stranger standing along the wall. He smiled and pumped his fist and reminded all those nearby of what most people had accepted as a certainty just hours before. “I know you put your money on Bama,” he said, laughing. “I know you did.”