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May 02, 2019

Next Level

By: Ross Taylor

Clemson’s presence in the NFL grew with the addition of six Tigers being selected in the 2019 NFL Draft

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

The potential of looming thunderstorms in Nashville threatened the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft on April 25, as NFL officials wondered if contingency plans would alter their annual selection meeting. Yet, weather couldn’t threaten Clemson Football history being made that evening or that weekend.

Clemson finished the three-day draft extravaganza in Music City with an ACC-best six total selections, marking the fifth draft in the last six years that Clemson has produced at least five draft picks. Clemson is one of only three schools to accomplish that feat in that time frame, joining Alabama and Ohio State.

Day 1 was historic, as Clemson saw three of its products get selected in the first round for the first time in school history. Clemson’s three first-round selections tied with Alabama and Mississippi State for the most in 2019, and Clemson became the first school in NFL Draft history to have three defensive linemen selected in the first round of a single draft, excluding college defensive linemen selected as outside linebackers.

Clemson’s contributions in the 2019 NFL Draft started earlier than many of the pundits had predicted. The Oakland Raiders selected defensive end Clelin Ferrell with the No. 4 overall pick, tying Ferrell with Banks McFadden (1939), Gaines Adams (2007) and Sammy Watkins (2014) for the highest selection by a Clemson Tiger all-time.

Emotions overcame Ferrell, who was at home in Virginia, upon receiving a call from Raiders General Manager Mike Mayock informing him of his selection.

“Listen, there’s one obligation you have with this pick, you hear me?” Mayock said. “And that’s leadership.”

“Yes, sir,” a tearful Ferrell replied. “All day. I promise you — all I’ve got. Everything I’ve got.”

Day 1 was tinged with hints of Head Coach Dabo Swinney’s preternatural gift of foresight and flair for numerology. On the red carpet prior to the first round, Swinney played a modified game of “Plinko” to see which team would draft a Clemson player. His disc landed in the slot for the Raiders, prompting him to proclaim, “Somebody’s going to the Raiders!”

After Ferrell’s selection, Swinney excitedly recounted the story to Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables and Defensive Tackles Coach Todd Bates.

“It did not!” Venables said incredulously. “How about that? That’s so you.”

Since Deshaun Watson and Hunter Renfrow connected to secure the national championship in 2016, the numbers 4 and 13 have held a special place in the hearts of Clemson fans. The numbers struck again in the first round, as after Ferrell’s selection at No. 4, the Miami Dolphins selected defensive tackle Christian Wilkins with the No. 13 overall pick. And if that coincidence wasn’t enough, the New York Giants took Clemson’s record-breaking third first-round pick at the sum of those two selections, No. 17 overall, when they selected defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence.

To the surprise of very few, Wilkins’ trademark radiance was on-display in Nashville. Wearing a white suit inspired by his Power Rangers alter-ego, Wilkins was responsible for the draft’s enduring image. Walking onto the stage excitedly after being selected, Wilkins pointed up toward NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to give him the common “chest bump” signal.

The signal didn’t register with Goodell, and soon, all 315 pounds of Wilkins landed on the Commissioner. Images of the moment with enormous smiles gracing the faces of both a mid-air Wilkins and a surprised Goodell instantly became ubiquitous, adorning the elevators at Wilkins’ new home stadium at Miami and even becoming Goodell’s Twitter avatar photo 48 hours later.

Lawrence’s selection by the Giants was equally joyous, if understandably a bit more subdued. After accompanying Wilkins for photos after his selection, the Clemson contingent in Nashville returned to the Green Room to watch the draft when the group received a FaceTime call from Lawrence, who was wearing a blue hat bearing the Giants wordmark while with family in North Carolina.

“The giant went to the Giants!” Swinney exclaimed.

Clemson added another draftee on Day 2, as the Raiders selected cornerback Trayvon Mullen in the second round with the No. 40 overall pick. Like Ferrell before him, Mullen was emotional and tearful on his draft call upon receiving the news from Raiders Head Coach Jon Gruden. Gruden then turned the phone over to Ferrell, who had arrived in Oakland earlier in the day for his introductory press conference.

“I’m proud of you,” Ferrell told Mullen. “You deserve everything that you’ve got, baby. This is only the beginning.”

Day 3 saw the fourth member of Clemson’s starting defensive line unit enter the NFL ranks, as the Detroit Lions selected defensive end Austin Bryant in the fourth round with the No. 117 overall pick. Bryant’s selection ended a 40-year drought, as he was the Lions’ first selection from Clemson since 1979 (Jonathan Brooks).

Wide receiver Hunter Renfrow accounted for Clemson’s sixth and final pick of the draft, going to the Raiders in the fifth round with the No. 149 overall pick. Renfrow’s addition to the Raiders’ selections of Ferrell and Mullen marked the second time in history that three Clemson players were drafted by the same NFL team in a single draft, joining the New York Giants’ selections of Terry Kinard, Andy Headen and Frank Magwood in the famed 1983 NFL Draft.

Clemson’s presence in the Raiders’ draft resonated from Death Valley to the Black Hole. Brent Musburger, known for coining Clemson’s entrance by Howard Rock as “The Most Exciting 25 Seconds in College Football,” now serves as the Raiders’ play-by-play voice and tweeted, “Raiders Rock! Clemson West! Just Win Again, Baby! Next cold one at Esso Club is on me!”

Renfrow’s selection completed one of the most unlikely career arcs in Clemson history. An original walk-on, Renfrow became the first Clemson player since Reggie Pleasant in 1985 to be drafted after starting his college career as a walk-on.

Clemson’s draft picks came from positions that have been areas of strength in the NFL Draft in recent years. The four defensive linemen pushed Clemson’s total of defensive linemen selected in the Dabo Swinney era to 17 and have Clemson multiple defensive linemen selections five times in the last nine drafts. Mullen’s selection gave Clemson at least one defensive back selected to nine of the last 11 drafts, and Renfrow’s selection gave Clemson a draft pick at wide receiver for the fourth consecutive year for the first time in school history.

With the attention of the draft community now turning to 2020, Clemson will enter next year’s proceedings with a streak of producing at least one pick in 17 consecutive drafts since 2003, the second-longest streak in school history (24 from 1951-74).