Swag Surfin': Venables' defense to swing a big fist in 2018


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Wilkins gets one more chance to Swag Surf in Death Valley
Wilkins gets one more chance to Swag Surf in Death Valley

Swag Surfin, part two.

Two-time All-American Christian Wilkins will return for his senior year in 2018. Wilkins informed the Clemson football staff of his decision Monday afternoon – the deadline for declaring for the NFL Draft – giving defensive coordinator another big-time and experienced playmaker for his defense.

With Wilkins’s return, Clemson will have three returning first-team All-Americans and four returning All-ACC players among its front four defenders for 2018. Last year Clemson ranked second in the nation in scoring defense (13.6), fourth in total defense (276.7), fourth in pass defense (161.9) and tied for first in sacks (46). Additionally, Clemson was second in fewest yards per play allowed (4.27), and second in passing yards per attempt (5.7).

Of Clemson’s 44 sacks last season, 39 of them are returning.

Clemson will have eight returning starters on defense for 2018 overall. In addition to the front four (Wilkins, Ferrell, Bryant and Lawrence), the Tigers return starting linebackers Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar, and defensive backs Trayvon Mullen and Tanner Muse.

The Clemson defensive line was regarded by many as the nation’s best last season, and the fact that all four starters return is something no one would have dreamed of back in November. I was reading a history book last weekend, and it talked about how a certain general wanted to swing his army like a fist. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has a might fist he can swing at opposing offenses – in addition to the four linemen returning he has several key veterans and top recruits like Xavier Thomas, K.J. Henry, Kyler McMichael, Josh Belk and Darnell Jefferies.

(Speaking of the fist, allow me to get off topic here for just a second. Clemson will be going for a fifth consecutive win over South Carolina next November, and while “Fear the Thumb” has a certain archaic charm, be different. Fear the thumb sounds like something a proctologist would say if he has a band-aid on his index finger. Fear the Fist is way more intimidating and apt.)

I wrote in a story Monday that the older players returning is not only good for what happens on the field, but it helps in raising this next wave of great players. Players like Wilkins, Ferrell, and Bryant are outstanding team leaders who leave no doubt about the right way to do things. Last year’s crop of defensive linemen told us that Wilkins and his fellow Power Rangers were there on the first day of drills, making sure each player knew what was expected.

With young stars like Thomas and Henry, there is sometimes a period of de-recruitment, and a lot of times it’s the older players whose voice carries the most weight. It’s easy to listen to someone who has appeared in five College Football Playoff games, won three consecutive ACC Championships and wears the ring of a National Champion.

Sure enough, I was told that Wilkins was working with Belk and Jefferies Monday afternoon (“already working with the young pups” I was told), setting expectations.

Clemson will once again be favored to win the ACC and will be a favorite to return to the College Football Playoff. That would have been the case with or without Wilkins, and this team will have to fight those expectations in the off-season, over the summer and early next year. That’s why having experienced players – guys who have lost title games and playoff games – might mean the difference between a second title or another playoff loss.

The Power Rangers are back together for a final ride, and it’s going to be fun to enjoy it with them.



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