COLUMBIA - Clemson's heart, soul and power on defense is intact next season with defensive tackle Christian Wilkins' choice to hold off on the NFL and return to the Tigers.
Wilkins was the last holdout among three draft-eligible underclassmen along the defensive front - all who were projected first-round picks in some mock NFL drafts - to decide to come back to school. On Saturday, defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant announced their intentions to play at Clemson next year.
Wilkins drew things out a bit longer, waiting until a few hours before the NFL deadline at midnight Monday to tell coaches he'd be back, too.
It sets up another year of lockdown defense up front for the Tigers, who tied with Southern Cal for most sacks in the country with 46. Along with Wilkins, Ferrell and Bryant, the fourth line starter in mammoth defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence will be a junior
Wilkins, at 6-foot-4, 300-pounds, has long been considered the defensive leader at Clemson. Two Halloweens ago, Wilkins persuaded Ferrell and Lawrence to join him as part of a Power Rangers group, complete with masks and different-colored costumes.
"Every day before practice that's one of our handshakes," Wilkins said. "We all morph and power up. When that helmet comes on, it's morphing time."
The Tigers will have one more season of watching their defensive front change into quarterback crushers.
Ferrell was team leader with 9.5 sacks while Bryant was next at 8.5. Wilkins had five sacks while Lawrence had two.
Also back for the Tigers is linebacker Kendall Joseph, a junior considered a mid-round selection. He led Clemson with 90 tackles this fall.
After Wilkins' announcement, Bryant posted on Twitter, "We backkkkkkkk."
Clemson lone defensive early entrant is starting safety Van Smith. The defense also loses two starting seniors in linebacker Dorian O'Daniel and cornerback Ryan Carter.
The Tigers did lose a few offensive players to the draft, most notably junior receivers Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud. Offensive lineman Taylor Hearn, a fourth-year junior, also declared for the NFL draft.
Wilkins seemed the most likely defensive lineman to leave early. He graduated this past December and took part in senior day ceremonies against the Citadel on Nov. 18.
The trend at Clemson was vastly different than two years ago when five players on defense, including first-round selection in defensive end Shaq Lawson, left early for the NFL.
Clemson did not stand still in recruiting lineman either, adding highly regarded defensive ends in Xavier Thomas of Bradenton, Florida, and K.J. Henry of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
The Tigers also return defensive coordinator Brent Venables, whose name came up in several coaching searches but ultimately remained at Clemson where he's led the defense for the last six years.
Clemson finished 12-2 this season, winning its third straight Atlantic Coast Conference championship. It reached the College Football Playoff for a third consecutive season, but fell to ultimate national champion Alabama, 24-6, in the Sugar Bowl.
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