CLEMSON — The word is still mum on Christian Wilkins.
But Saturday night, at a team banquet, Dabo Swinney's Clemson football team got a dose of stunning news regarding the future of the program, particularly in terms of the defensive line — a unit that will certainly be the nation's best next year.
Clelin Ferrell is coming back to school for the 2018 season. So, too, is Austin Bryant.
From the linebackers group, Kendall Joseph will return for another year, and in the secondary, Mark Fields will, too.
But Ferrell is the undeniable headliner, the ultimate stroke of fortune for a Clemson team that wants to contend for another national championship. The redshirt sophomore was No. 8 on ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper's big board in December, was a likely first-round pick and is among the best defensive linemen in college football.
That Clemson will get him back not only comes as a major shock, but also serves as an intimidating foreshadowing to what opposing offenses next season will see when he teams up with Bryant and Dexter Lawrence and Xavier Thomas, Richard Yeargin, Albert Huggins, Xavier Kelly, Logan Rudolph and others. Certainly, Swinney could not be happier about the Ferrell news as the Tigers head into the 2018 season with one of the most stacked lines in all of college football. Ferrell also happens to be among the best leaders the Tigers have.
"There is a lot of leadership from all levels on this team. As far as the guy that surprises me, maybe Clelin, just because he is just a second-year player for us, and he was one of those guys in the recruiting process that was kind of quiet. He really was … He came here and just has such a sweet personality to him, smiles all the time, is very kind-hearted," Swinney said earlier this past season. "Man, he has really become a great leader for us. And I don’t know that I saw that early on in him. But he has become an incredible leader and just takes a lot of pride in how he mentors the younger players, Rudolph and Justin and Xavier Kelly. He really goes out of his way to lead those guys."
Ferrell was Clemson's tackle for loss guru all season, racking up 18 for 80 yards. He also had 66 tackles for the year with 9½ sacks and had the perfect combination of speed and strength. Earlier in the year, Swinney called Ferrell Clemson's top, most consistent defensive end, and Ferrell proved him right all year long.
At 6-5, 260, he combines a level of physicality with a sense of speed that NFL teams will crave one day, most likely in the 2019 NFL draft.
In terms of Bryant, he also may have been NFL-ready but will certainly benefit from another year at Clemson.
The junior from Georgia finished this season with 15½ tackles for loss and an interception. He and Ferrell both were named to All-ACC teams with Ferrell landing first-team honors and Bryant landing on second team.
Joseph, who earned a third-team nod, will bring a leadership to a linebackers group that is losing Dorian O'Daniel now that he is out of eligibility. As for Fields, he earned valuable minutes for a Clemson secondary that was banged up all throughout the year.
With the Monday deadline approaching for players to declare, Wilkins will have to make a choice sooner rather than later, if he hasn't already. That he asked Swinney if he could be honored on Senior Day in November and that he, too, did not announce his intentions at the banquet suggest he could be ready to move on.
Regardless, Clemson is expected to be loaded on the line with at least 75 percent of its starters returning. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables will have all the depth he needs come spring practice.
"What a year it has been," Bryant wrote on his personal Twitter page earlier this month. "I am extremely thankful for every moment we had together as a team this season. We did a lot of things (the outsiders) said we wouldn’t. Much love to all the Tiger supporters that never lost faith. Believe me, the best is still yet to come for Clemson."