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Men in the Middle

Men in the Middle

Note: The following appears in the August issue of Orange: The Experience. For full access to all of the publication’s content, join IPTAY today by calling 864-656-2115.

Iron sharpening iron. That is the visceral, symbolic imagery used by defensive lineman Christian Wilkins to describe the mentality of the Tiger defensive line.

And though that metaphor certainly does an adequate job of exemplifying his holistic approach to playing the game of football, it perfectly encapsulates the remarkable friendship of Dexter Lawrence and the aforementioned Wilkins, two superstars in the making whose uncanny size, skillsets and maturity levels have them primed for greatness.

“If you’re a defensive lineman on this team, you have to go up against guys every day who could beat you out for a spot, and that really drives you to be your best,” said Wilkins when discussing the “iron sharpening iron” mindset.

Clearly, that ever-present competition has paid significant dividends for the Clemson defense in recent years, as the abundance of depth and athleticism up front has arguably been superior to every other defensive line in college football. And perhaps no other defensive linemen stood out more prominently last season than the Tigers’ star defensive tackles.

At 6’4’’, 300 pounds and 6’4’’, 340 pounds, respectively, Wilkins, a junior, and Lawrence, a sophomore, are impossible to ignore, not only because of their colossal statures, but for their shared ability to dominate on the gridiron game in and game out.

On the surface, Lawrence, a stoic, soft-spoken denizen of rural Wake Forest, N.C., and Wilkins, an outgoing, high-energy native of the bustling Springfield, Mass., area, are quite conspicuously different. But in terms of their attitudes toward football, Lawrence and Wilkins are practically identical twins.

As a result of their analogous approaches to the game, Clemson’s incredibly talented sackmasters have followed similar career trajectories, and despite their obvious personality differences, the two have forged an unbreakable bond that has them poised to serve as the most formidable defensive tackle duo in the college ranks this season.

When speaking on that tight-knit relationship, which could easily serve as the inspiration for a football-themed spinoff of the classic sitcom The Odd Couple, Lawrence did not sell short what having Wilkins as a teammate means to him.

“It’s a brother-brother relationship. We’re at each other every day, trying to keep each other humble. As far as football is concerned, we keep our heads down and stay focused.”

A freshman phenom for the Tigers last season, Lawrence met Wilkins in the midst of his recruitment process while in high school, with Wilkins later serving as the host for Lawrence on his official visit to Clemson. From there, a friendship was forged, and as Wilkins recalls, it was fairly obvious from the get-go that the young pass rushers are cut from the same cloth.

“We clicked right off the bat. We really hit it off and felt like we had known each other for a while. And we’ve been best friends ever since.”

Never one to shy away from a chance to draw a laugh, Wilkins joked that the friendship is not exactly the brotherly one that Lawrence described, but more like a paternal relationship, with the younger Lawrence playing the role of Wilkins’ son.

“It’s definitely a father-son relationship,” said Wilkins with a smirk. “He’s bigger than me, but that’s my son. We’re definitely like real brothers, really tight and really close. We’re always there for each other. We’re as tight as friends get.”

That friendship, above all else, is rooted in the devotion that both young men have for the game of football, something that has come to define their reputations as relentless workers on and off the field. That mentality has proven to be infectious, with it serving as the crux of what makes Clemson’s defensive line tick.

“There are a lot of guys who push each other every day to be the best,” stated Wilkins when speaking on Clemson’s like-minded corps of defensive linemen. “Whether it’s in the weight room, on the field or off of the field, it’s a bunch of hard-working guys who constantly challenge each other.”

Though too humble to admit it, Wilkins is the ultimate source of the unified outlook shared by his fellow defensive linemen, as the natural-born leader with the charismatic personality of a Hollywood entertainer burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2015 and quickly made an indelible mark on the Tiger defense. A freak athlete with the ability to play anywhere on the defensive line, Wilkins boasts a tenacious instinct for wreaking havoc in the backfield.

Naturally, the impressive football prowess and admirable leadership abilities sported by Wilkins have not garnered the same level of national attention as the much more light-hearted elements of what makes him so special, from his keen sense of humor to his love for all things Power Rangers and his celebratory split following Clemson’s national championship win that made him a viral sensation. But flying under the radar for his on-field contributions is not something that bothers Wilkins, as it motivates him and enables him to stay focused on the road ahead and committed to being the best teammate he can possibly be.

“We don’t need the attention,” admitted Wilkins when speaking on the humble, work-oriented attitude of the Tiger defensive linemen. “We’re just going to keep our heads down and keep working and keep grinding. Nothing really matters but doing our jobs and holding our weight.”

In terms of holding one’s own weight while on the field, Lawrence did all of that and more last season, earning significant starting time as a first-year freshman as part of one of the deepest, most experienced defensive lines in football, which is certainly not a common occurrence. To be fair, with a maturity level well beyond his years and an uncanny skillset that has him poised for greatness at both the college and professional ranks, Lawrence is anything but common.

The epitome of a gap-plugger on the defensive front, Lawrence is a mountain of a man with no limitations whatsoever to his physical, frenetic pass-rushing style. Needless to say, Lawrence’s football acuity is due in large part to his awe-inspiring athleticism and impressive knack for getting to the quarterback, but what truly makes him so great at such a young age is his persistent willingness to learn.

While all great players, including Lawrence and Wilkins, are coach’s players who are constantly anxious to glean the tutelage of their elder superiors, Lawrence is a student of the game in every sense of the epithet, as he is also a player’s player.

“I want to learn from the players just as much I learn from the coaches,” said Lawrence. “All of the veterans who were already at Clemson when I arrived brought me in and were always willing to teach me and answer all of my questions.”

With Wilkins serving as the outgoing, vocal leader of Clemson’s defensive line and Lawrence serving as the precocious prodigy who is consistently eager to learn, it is easy to comprehend how Wilkins and Lawrence quickly became the closest of companions upon Lawrence’s arrival on campus last year.

Taking Lawrence under his wing and helping assimilate him into the defense, Wilkins saw something in Lawrence that he also recognized in himself, as each player stays true to the “head-down” approach to football. Choosing to let their play do the talking, Lawrence and Wilkins are appreciative of the opportunities their sport has provided them with, and, as indicated by their relentless playing styles, they never take those opportunities for granted.

“I want to be a great player, and I know that in order to do that, I have to have a certain level of drive, passion and love for the game of football,” said Wilkins. “I know a lot of players say that they want to be great, but I try to match my actions with my words.”

Never content with their on-field accomplishments, Wilkins and Lawrence live by the old “success is never final” adage that explains their impeccable work ethic on their quest for greatness. Sure, the accolades have already come in droves, with both players earning five-star rankings as recruits and proceeding to claim prestigious honors at the college level, but for Wilkins, a reigning All-American, and Lawrence, reigning ACC Defensive Rookie-of-the-Year, their ascension to the proverbial football mountaintop has only just begun.

As the 2017 season nears, Clemson’s stud defensive tackles are refusing to rest on their laurels of having been starters in a national title game victory this past January. Instead, they have new goals in mind, with the looming season bringing with it the next chapter in their football stories and, furthermore, additional opportunities to make an even greater impact for the Tigers.

While many players might be satiated by national championship glory, Wilkins and Lawrence remain on the prowl with their heads down because for them, a player must give the game of football everything he has before greatness can be truly achieved.

Although a taste of championship victory might satisfy lesser competitors, it had an opposite effect on Wilkins and Lawrence, leaving the iron-sharpened defensive linemen as motivated as ever this season and hungry for much, much more.