Clem­son play­ers could be wise draft choices for Pan­thers

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY MAR­CEL LOUIS-JAC­QUES mlouis­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

It’s about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Clem­son to Char­lotte, de­pend­ing on the road­way. While most peo­ple mak­ing the trip take I-85, a few Clem­son res­i­dents hope to take a route to Char­lotte no­body has taken be­fore — the NFL Draft.

Austin Bryant, Dex­ter Law- rence, Chris­tian Wilkins and Clelin Fer­rell made up one of the best de­fen­sive lines in col­lege foot­ball his­tory. One of them could soon earn the ti­tle of first-ever Clem­son player drafted by the Carolina Pan­thers. This might be the most likely year to date for the Tigers-Pan­thers draft drought to end, as each of the play­ers could fill a clear need on the Pan­thers’ de­fen­sive line.

Col­lec­tively, they’re a two- time na­tional cham­pi­onship­win­ning de­fen­sive line. In­di­vid­u­ally, Bryant, Lawrence, Wilkins and Fer­rell are four of the best de­fen­sive prospects in the 2019 draft class, each with a unique back­ground.

AUSTIN BRYANT

Con­sid­er­ing that most of the at­ten­tion sur­round­ing Clem­son’s de­fen­sive line swirls around Fer­rell, Wilkins and Lawrence, there’s a de­cent amount peo­ple don’t know about Austin Bryant.

For ex­am­ple, they may not know he earned his own “Wide Re­ceiver U” shirt at Clem­son in 2017 after pluck­ing his lone ca­reer in­ter­cep­tion out of the air with one hand against Vir­ginia Tech. He still has the shirt.

Ca­sual col­lege foot­ball fans may not know that Bryant is a two-time Al­lACC se­lec­tion and a First­Team All-Amer­i­can, or that he grad­u­ated from Clem­son in three years with a de­gree in busi­ness man­age­ment. Clem­son fans may not know how tall he is — he was listed at 6-foot-6 on the team’s depth chart, but checked into the NFL Scout­ing Com­bine at just over 6foot-3.

But few peo­ple out­side of Clem­son knew Bryant played the fi­nal six games of the 2018 sea­son with a pec­toral mus­cle that his doc­tor told him was “torn from the bone.”

“I had a tough de­ci­sion to make whether I wanted to get surgery right then or wait un­til after the sea­son,” Bryant said last week at the NFL Scout­ing Com­bine in In­di­anapo­lis. “I sat down, I thought about it, prayed about it, talked to my par­ents and heeded a lot of ad­vice from men­tors and peo­ple I thought highly of that would give me a val­ued opin­ion.

“At the end of the day I knew what I came back to do. That’s the rea­son all three of us came back, was to win a Na­tional Cham­pi­onship. If I could walk, I was go­ing to play. I knew it was go­ing to hurt.”

Bryant de­scribed the pain at an “eight or nine” out of 10, un­til it mer­ci­fully numbed up as it scarred over. He still man­aged 4.5 sacks and 8 tack­les for a loss be­fore fi­nally opt­ing for surgery in Jan­uary after the sea­son ended.

He didn’t do any drills at the com­bine — and likely won’t be cleared to play un­til train­ing camp — but Bryant said teams liked his film enough to give him a draft pro­jec­tion range from the late-first round to the third round.

One of those teams is the Carolina Pan­thers, who need an edge rusher, own three picks in the sec­ond and third rounds, and for­mally met with Bryant at the com­bine.

DEX­TER LAWRENCE

Be­ing soft-spo­ken doesn’t al­ways mean some­one is scared to speak. Clem­son’s Dex­ter Lawrence is proof of that.

While most prospects fielded ques­tions about their pro po­ten­tial and for­mal meet­ings, many of Lawrence’s podium ses­sion at the com­bine re­volved around the pos­i­tive drug test that kept him out of last sea­son’s Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off. The ju­nior tested pos­i­tive for the PED os­tarine prior to Clem­son’s’ Cot­ton Bowl game against Notre Dame and was sus­pended for the fi­nal two games of his col­lege ca­reer.

After nearly two months to come to terms with it, the 6-foot-5, 342 pound Lawrence said he still doesn’t know how the drug got in his sys­tem — but he seems to have grown more com­fort­able talk­ing about it.

“I feel like it’s not me. Un­for­tu­nately, I tested pos­i­tive for a drug I don’t know how to pro­nounce,” Lawrence said . ”I’m nat­u­rally this size, this big, been this way all my life. There’s no rea­son for me to do any­thing self­ish like that.

Now, Lawrence says his pri­mary con­cern lead­ing up to April’s draft is prov­ing to teams that he’s more than a space-eater, but rather an ver­sa­tile per­former who can both rush the passer and stop the run.

“I call my­self a once-ina-decade type of player,” he said. “I feel like just my rare abil­i­ties at that and then I feel like the way I try to mas­ter the game, the way I try to mas­ter my tech­niques, it’s just dif­fer­ent than a lot of guys. I work on my weak­nesses ev­ery day. Just to im­prove on ar­eas in my game that I know that can make me great.”

He pulled out of drills at the com­bine due to a quad in­jury, which he suf­fered dur­ing the 40-yard dash (although the in­jury didn’t stop him from fin­ish­ing the drill in 5.05 sec­onds). He still had a for­mal meet­ing with the Pan­thers.

If se­lected by Carolina, Lawrence would not only be the Pan­thers’ first Clem­son draft pick, he would start his pro ca­reer with his home state team. Lawrence is a na­tive of Wake For­est.

“That’s my home­town right there. It would be great just to have my fam­ily close, my friends close. I didn’t go to an in-state school. So, that could be more like a lit­tle more like a way to put on for my home state.”

CHRIS­TIAN WILKINS

The un­ques­tioned leader of Clem­son’s de­fen­sive line was also its most vis­i­ble mem­ber dur­ing his four sea­sons.

He did a gym­nas­tic split on tele­vi­sion after win­ning the 2016 na­tional cham­pi­onship, gave Dabo Swin­ney a wet wil­lie on stage after win­ning an­other one in Jan­uary, and even op­er­ated as both a goal line run­ning back and tight end dur­ing the 2018 sea­son.

Wilkins al­ways seems to be in the spot­light, but he wants NFL teams to know that what he brings off the field out­weighs his on­field an­tics.

“I want a team to re­al­ize that if you get me…they’re in­vest­ing in so much more (than foot­ball),” he said at the Com­bine. “Just the abil­ity to not only dom­i­nate on the field, be ef­fec­tive on the field, but also to im­prove the cul­ture, whether it’s good, bad, ugly, dif­fer­ent.

“I think ul­ti­mately, I’m the kind of guy you want in the locker room, you want on your team, on the field with you. I’m some­one who’s just ex­tremely com­mit­ted and in­vested in my craft.”

He grad­u­ated from Clem­son in two-and-a-half years, tak­ing as many as 18 cred­its in a sin­gle se­mes­ter to do so. He worked as a sub­sti­tute teacher at a nearby school in 2018 as well.

Wilkins met with the Pan­thers dur­ing the com­bine, who are search­ing for an ef­fec­tive 3-tech­nique de­fen­sive line­men, and a fu­ture leader fol­low- ing Julius Pep­pers’ re­tire­ment. The in­ter­est, it seems, is mu­tual.

“That would be cool (be­ing drafted by Carolina). I know I would have a lot of fan sup­port, be­ing able to have Clem­son so close,” he said. “I feel like things like go­ing to a new team, new place can be stress­ful — I don’t think I’ll have an is­sue ad­just­ing. But be­ing that close to al­most my sec­ond home, that would make that tran­si­tion a lot eas­ier.”

CLELIN FER­RELL

While all four of Clem­son’s line­men met with the Pan­thers, Fer­rell per­haps had the most in com­mon with head coach Ron Rivera, who grew up on a mil­i­tary base in Cal­i­for­nia.

Both of Fer­rell’s par­ents served in the mil­i­tary, and although his fa­ther Cleavester passed away when Clelin was 13, the elder Fer­rell helped in­still in his son, cer­tain val­ues Rivera might ap­pre­ci­ate.

“That was some­thing that was a gift and a curse for me. My mom, she served in Desert Storm. My fa­ther was in Viet­nam,” Fer­rell said. “And that was re­ally, re­ally big for me be­cause they loved the as­pect of just in­tegrity. They al­ways de­manded that I did the right things, went about my busi­ness the right way, and did it in a man­ner where it was re­spect­ful. They were re­ally big on not hang­ing around the wrong peo­ple.”

An­a­lysts are split whether Fer­rell will still be on the draft board when the Pan­thers pick at No. 16. But if he does land in Carolina, he may be an ideal suc­ces­sor to Pep­pers.

Not ev­ery­one is com­fort­able fol­low­ing a fu­ture Hall of Famer, which Pep­pers cer­tainly will be when he be­comes el­i­gi­ble. But Fer­rell said all the right things in In­di­anapo­lis to sug­gest he isn’t con­cerned with any other ca­reer be­sides his own.

“I don’t mea­sure my level of po­ten­tial or my great­ness that I’m try­ing to achieve to some­body else be­cause then I won’t know what my full po­ten­tial is,” he said. “I re­ally more so just fo­cus on be­ing the best me that I can be.”

JOHN GLASER USA TO­DAY Sports

Clem­son de­fen­sive line­men Chris­tian Wilkins (42) and Clelin Fer­rell are two of four for­mer Tigers line­men who make sense for the Carolina Pan­thers.

JEF­FREY MCWHORTER AP

De­fen­sive end Austin Bryant is a two-time All-ACC se­lec­tion and first-team All-Amer­i­can.

MICHAEL CONROY AP

De­fen­sive tackle Dex­ter Lawrence in­jured a quad mus­cle run­ning the 40-yard dash at the NFL com­bine.

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