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The Legacy of Christian Wilkins

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Most greats of the game stand tall in the spotlight; Christian Wilkins, on the biggest stage, dropped down and did a split.

Twice, Christian Wilkins has been named a national champion, four times a conference champion. He has been named an All-American on two occasions and an All-ACC defender three different times. Wilkins has been introduced as the winner of the Bill Willis Award, the ACC's Jim Tatum Award and the William V. Campbell Trophy. Most recently, Roger Goodell called Wilkins' name as the 13th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Should we be introducing another, more-comprehensive title for Wilkins? Is he the ACC's greatest defensive tackle of all time?

The idea of deeming Wilkins the league's positional G.O.A.T. is one that should prompt immediate and visceral references to other dynamic legends: Aaron Donald, William Perry, Randy White and more. It's extremely difficult to compare one season to another, much less other eras. The conversation, at the very least, though, is one that is worth having. And forget recency bias; Wilkins, to the contrary, has been so commonly and regularly intertwined into the national narrative that his impact may not be fully appreciated until some of that shine actually fades.

Greatness, here, is the key word. It is a comprehensive distinction, in this case a collegiate reference only, that must incorporate advancement and achievement, impact and influence, statistics and stature and, for lack of a better description, everything else in between. It is not, necessarily, an identifier of who had the best single season, see the incomparable Donald, who led the nation with 28.5 tackles for loss in his lone ACC campaign, or which defender pioneered the position, likely White, rather a multi-faceted metric of significance.

To that end, what Wilkins just accomplished, both individually and collectively, is now bookmarked as part of college football's biography. You can't tell the story of the game without him.

If Clemson has built a modern-day dynasty, the smiling-Wilkins, constantly disrupting and destroying in the middle of the line of scrimmage, has been, as an anchor at arguably the game's toughest position, the nasty. Since debuting with over 450 snaps and emerging in the starting lineup as a highly-touted true freshman, Wilkins has been an unstoppable force for the Tigers, setting an unrelenting tone in the trenches. Against the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Miami, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Virginia Tech, he was often at his absolute best.

More has been Wilkins' constant measure. Correspondingly, his trophy case is now a trophy chamber.     

With Wilkins, both his performance and presence proved instrumental in establishing a championship culture at Clemson. That legacy continues. One of the most decorated student-athletes in recent memory, Wilkins won by making the most of each and every opportunity, then rushing right towards what was next. While he was an All-ACC football player three times, Wilkins was, four times, honored as an all-conference academic selection. He became the first scholarship Tiger ever to graduate in two-and-a-half years and, prior to the most-recent College Football Playoff, earned a Master's degree in, of all things, athletic leadership. 

More than all-time great player, Wilkins stands as the student-athlete protype.

Wilkins, as a senior, won a national championship, captained the first-ever FBS football team to go 15-0 and, through the aforementioned Campbell Trophy, was honored by the National Football Foundation as the player with the best combination of academics, community service and on-field performance in the country. Stories like that usually come with a script.

A defining part of Wilkins' resume is the standard he helped set. Tied for the most games played in Clemson history, Wilkins compiled a stunning 55-4 overall record, with three of those losses coming by a combined nine points. He, as mentioned, won two national championships, four conference titles and, remarkably, every single one of his seasons ended in the College Football Playoff. The Tigers won each of his final ten outings, the Alabama rematch included, by at least 20 points. Even after the highest level was reached, Wilkins never stopped improving.    

All of the work done along the way was unparalleled. Wilkins completed his career with 250 total tackles, 56 quarterback pressures, 41 tackles for loss, 16 sacks, 16 pass break ups, four fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles and, to tie it all together, scored three offensive touchdowns. Past just his defensive prowess, Wilkins played meaningful roles in all three of football's facets.

As a defensive lineman, exclusively, the impact Wilkins made was historically versatile and wide-reaching. Simply put, he did it all. Showcasing that full-scale production, Wilkins is the only Power Five player this millennium with at least 40 tackles for loss, 15 sacks, 15 pass deflections and four fumble recoveries. Narrowing the focus some, he is one of just 15 members of the 40-15-15 club over the past decade, a list which includes Khalil Mack, Ryan Shazier, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Kawaan Short and Ndamakong Suh.

Wilkins was the constant catalyst for some of the most dominant and ferocious defenses of the modern era. Clemson ranked first and second, respectively, in the nation in scoring defense the past two seasons. Three out of Wilkins' four years, his Tigers slotted in the top ten in the country in total defense. With Wilkins front and center, Clemson, in 2015, 2016 and 2018, led all of college football in tackles for loss. 

The memories and milestones are many. As a freshman, Wilkins forced a fumble against Notre Dame and a caught a 31-yard pass on a fake punt against Oklahoma. His sophomore year saw Wilkins, versus Troy, become the first Clemson defensive lineman to score a touchdown out of an offensive formation, then both block a field goal and convert another fake punt against NC State. Wilkins had ten tackles as the Tigers held Auburn without a touchdown his junior season. Last year, he, with a short run at Florida State, became the first Clemson defensive lineman to rush for a score since the advent of the two-platoon system.

Grit and grin, Wilkins has been a truly unique superstar. That said, his prominence has been shared by those around him. Wilkins will forever be linked to the likes of Austin Bryant, Kevin Dodd, Clelin Ferrell, Albert Huggins, Dexter Lawrence, Shaq Lawson, Xavier Thomas and Carlos Watkins. Those names only make Wilkins more notable. Their collective unit accomplishments, under coordinator Brent Venables, has been the starting point for so much of Clemson's success. With Wilkins, there is no space between his story and history.

Most greats of the game stand tall in the spotlight; Wilkins, on the biggest stage, dropped down and did a split.

A strong case can be made that Christian Wilkins is the greatest defensive tackle in ACC history. He is, at a minimum, on the very short list. Anyway you look at it, he is a player, and a person, worth talking about for generations to come.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports