Top 10 Tigers 2016, No. 2: Christian Wilkins helps popularize Clemson on national scale

Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins (42) celebrates with the fans at the 2015 ACC Championship against North Carolina. Clemson and Virginia Tech's Saturday matchup is a rematch of the 2016 conference title. 

File/Gwinn Davis/Special to The Post and Courier

It will take years, if it ever occurs, before Clemson routinely lures recruits from all corners of the country to come play in its little corner of South Carolina.

The Tigers are near the top of the college football world, cranking out victories on scoreboards and on Signing Day. But they’re not Ohio State or Notre Dame: you’re not about to see a Clemson starting lineup with a center from Texas snapping to a quarterback from California throwing a touchdown to a receiver from Pennsylvania getting hoisted by a lineman from Michigan. As it is at most schools, “Clemson Nation” is more a fluttering ideology than a tangible reality.

However, evidence that Clemson can follow its sometimes broad-reach tradition fostered by Danny Ford and go beyond the borders of Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas for impact players wears a smile and an XXL jersey with No. 42 printed on both sides. Christian Wilkins was raised in Massachusetts and reared at Suffield Academy in Connecticut, and he just might have a greater reach than even Deshaun Watson in terms of making Clemson nationally recognizable. While Watson and the Clemson offense toys with the idea of re-setting school records for yards and points, Wilkins represents the brightest young pupil on defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ depth chart. In case fans forgot, championship dreams only last as long as a team’s defense lets them.

Wilkins has rendered himself so valuable the coaching staff is preparing for the possibility Wilkins will take one hand off the ground and line up at defensive end. Clemson has never before seen this embarrassment of riches at defensive tackle – beyond Wilkins there are veterans Carlos Watkins and Scott Pagano, plus overgrown freshman Dexter Lawrence – and yet not enough proven pass-rushers after the two-year loss of top-35 NFL Draft picks Vic Beasley, Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd.

So Wilkins logged some reps there in spring, not a completely new experience for him.

“I played predominantly end in high school, but it’s just different at the next level,” Wilkins said this spring. “Those guys can really block you and it’s tougher setting the edge. When you’ve got to contain, you’ve got to be on your toes and be ready to go.”

Wilkins will be the Tigers’ vocal leader, their captain, their most trusted run-stopper for a Clemson defense who’d like to do more than just not get in the way of Watson’s vast capabilities.

On a trick play in the Orange Bowl, Wilkins twisted and turned his 315 pounds to deftly catch a 31-yard pass from punter Andy Teasdall. In doing so, Wilkins showed off his unnatural athleticism, and made himself a little more famous around the country – one more way Wilkins is helping spread the news outside the region.