Wilkins could have been in the NFL by now, but instead he will leave Clemson with four College Football Playoff appearances, two degrees, at least one national championship ring and a legacy he hopes goes beyond football.
"I feel like I've slowed things down and been able to appreciate all aspects of Clemson and my teammates and learn a lot more," Wilkins said. "And I feel like I've gained a lot of respect and a lot of people's trust just because the way I try to go about things and the way I carry myself and the way I try to lead every day.
"It's just cool to see how I feel like I'm still making Clemson a better place just by me still being there and being an old head and doing everything I need to do and maximizing my time there." Wilkins and the second-ranked Tigers face No. 3 Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday for a spot in the national title game on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, California.
Wilkins fondly recalls the last time Clemson played the Fighting Irish. "Your boy got his first career sack against Notre Dame," he said of the 24-22 victory in 2015 on a rainy night in Death Valley. The former five-star recruit from Massachusetts has been starting for Clemson since that freshman season.
Former Tigers linebackers Ben Boulware and B.J. Goodson were the team leaders when Wilkins first arrived. Never one to be a wallflower, he still understood the importance of taking cues from the upperclassmen.
"I feel like what makes me a good leader now is because I was a good follower when I was young," Wilkins said. "I did a good job of recognizing the aspects of people's leadership styles that I could take and the ones I could definitely leave and put my own twist on it."
Wilkins' leadership style? Maybe whistle while you work. "He comes to work every day, but he comes with a smile on his face and a couple jokes," linebacker Tre Lamar said. "It's always great to have the guy with jokes when everybody's dead tired and you don't know how you're going to get through the next period or the next run. But having a guy that's making you laugh the whole time makes it easier."
Defensive end Clelin Ferrell said it is difficult to be in a bad mood when Wilkins is around. "He's like a Saint Bernard," Ferrell said. "Maybe you're mad or something and you just like come into the house and you go sit on the couch. He's just kind of like runs and just jumps on your lap. And you're like, 'no, no get off me.' And he just jumps in your lap and licks your face. That's how I look at it. You're just like, 'All right, I love you doggie.'"
At the one potentially tumultuous point of this Clemson season, when freshman Trevor Lawrence earned the starting quarterback job after four games and previous starter Kelly Bryant left the team, Wilkins took it upon himself to make sure the transition would be smooth.
Wilkins took Lawrence to breakfast. "Just to kind of see where he was at mentally," Wilkins said. Lawrence said Wilkins' gesture helped during an unusual week. "It just kind of showed he had my back," Lawrence said.
Wilkins is also ringleader of one of the best defensive lines in recent college football history. Not only did he pass up on the chance to be a high NFL draft pick after last season, so did ends Ferrell and Austin Bryant. Along with junior defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, who will not play against Notre Dame because of a failed NCAA test for performance-enhancing drugs, Clemson's line anchors a defense that leads the nation in yards per play (4.08) and yards per rush (2.40) and is third with 46 sacks.
Returning to school also gave Wilkins the chance to be a substitute teacher in the offseason, working with elementary school kids — "I felt like Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'Kindergarten Cop'" — and high school students.
After becoming the first scholarship football player at Clemson to earn an undergraduate degree (communications) in 2 1/2 years, Wilkins knocked out a master's degree in athletic leadership that he received last week. He had a least a 3.0 grade-point average in every semester at Clemson. That helped him become the first Clemson player to win the William V. Campbell Trophy as college football top scholar-athlete, when he delivered a funny and uplifting off-the-cuff acceptance speech .
Wilkins tweaked Swinney during the nine-minute speech, saying the coach's wife settled for him. Swinney revealed later that Wilkins likes to keep people on their toes with a pinch on the butt. "But tonight I got payback when he was holding that big trophy," Swinney said.
Wilkins has at least one and maybe two more games left for Clemson. The NFL is the next stop, but Swinney believes Wilkins is on his way to even bigger things. "Christian Wilkins, he'll either be the president of the United States or he'll be good friends with him," Swinney said. "That's just who he is."
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