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 Lawrence, 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 championship-winning 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.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
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 All-ACC selection and a First-Team 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 6-foot-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.
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-in-a-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.”
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 on-field 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 following 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.”
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.”