CLEMSON, S.C. — Here’s the season after. Here’s the town with the freshest, least-frayed football national-title T-shirts. Here’s August heat so hellbent it can, in record time, maul a pack of Hershey’s Kisses on a rental-car passenger seat. And here from the practice field come two emblems — of Clemson and of the football era — measuring a combined 12 feet, 8 inches and 640 pounds.
They’re defensive tackles, and that’s right: There’s yammering about defensive tackles this August. For one thing, there’s discussion of how the spread-out game of the 21st century asks more of defensive tackles than did the Fred-and-Barney game of the 20th.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson , who marched the Tigers’ offense 68 yards in nine plays to last season’s college football championship around midnight in Tampa in January, marched his unfairly handsome face to the NFL’s Houston Texans in April. He bequeathed the reins to native South Carolinian Kelly Bryant, who went 13 for 18 for 75 yards with 178 rushing yards in two seasons of bit parts beneath Watson’s stardom.
So now this season look at these DTs.
When the Associated Press treated the republic to a preseason all-American team this past week , it placed Dexter Lawrence, a 6-foot-4, 340-pound sophomore combination of voluminosity and gentility, on the first team. It placed 6-4, 300-pound junior and bale of personality Christian Wilkins, who called his game “a little more sexy” than that of Lawrence, on the second team, with the knowledge that Wilkins already — and incredibly — snared a few all-American hosannas last year as a defensive end.
It’s believable when Wilkins says of his friendship with Lawrence, “A lot of our stories happen with food.” And while Wilkins called the preseason nod “a bunch of bullc--- right now” and called it “just all potential” and called it “no better than getting a mom-and-dad all-American,” he did say, “I mean, I appreciate the honor, whoever does the voting.”
It’s curious that Wilkins and Lawrence play for a coach who, as a walk-on wide receiver, played for a national champion noted for its electric defensive ends. Eric Curry and John Copeland still shimmer as futuristic in memory from the night they, on behalf of Alabama’s 1992 national champions, spent ransacking Heisman Trophy-winning Miami quarterback Gino Torretta in the Sugar Bowl.
Back then, Dabo Swinney explained, the Alabama defense played “a lot of two-gap stuff” with “big, thick guys inside.” He said: “The game was so different. Everything was run-oriented. Very few people would ever throw a spread at you. . . . The defensive tackles back in those days, we called them nose guards, and we didn’t necessarily think of them as great pass rushers.”
Nowadays, Swinney points out, he just sent to the NFL (and also Houston) a defensive tackle, Carlos Watkins, who helped himself to 101/2 sacks last season. “Nowadays,” Swinney said, “they’re athletes like those ends.”
Of Lawrence, Swinney said in July: “I’ve never seen a guy that size move like him.” Of Wilkins, Swinney said in August: “He had the ability to go out and play defensive end for you with no problem at all.”
Wilkins did just that last season with a stat almost stunning for a defensive end: 10 pass deflections. “It’s all about knowing football,” he said in July at the ACC media gathering. “If you pick up things on the game plan, if you know the team’s tendencies and things like that, it’s easier to get your hand on the ball. If you know a team likes to throw to a receiver on third and short or on a slant or something, it’s easier to get your hands up.”
All spread out with its pigskins flying around, the game has forced the evolution of the position but, Swinney said, not quite to the level that tackles and ends blur together the way guards and forwards often do in basketball. They’re still ends, and they’re still tackles.
“You’ve got to have bigger guys in there who can take on double teams,” Swinney said. “You’ve got to have bigger guys that can hold guys, but again, you’ve got to have, because of the passing game, you’ve got to have athletes in there.” They must be able to “play on the nose,” Swinney said, or in the more mobile style of the guy situated at the guard’s outside shoulder.
Wilkins has seen old films, of course. “Really, I would say just, maybe when Coach was playing, defensive tackles were expected to be more just run-stuffers, just taking on blocks, allowing everybody else to make plays, maybe,” he said. “And now we’re expected to do a lot of things: be athletes, a lot of movement, a lot of moving around. Rushing, getting after the passer. Being able to run sideline-to-sideline but still also at the same time taking on a lot of blocks, holding our blocks, being double-teamed, things like that. So I feel like a tackle’s a little more versatile now.”
In that vein, Lawrence, from Wake Forest, N.C., one of the most prized recruits ever to attend Clemson, is an interesting case, the way Wilkins pegs it. “I can power, but I’m a little bit more finesse,” said Wilkins, from Springfield, Mass. “I use my speed and my athleticism a little bit more. Dex is a freak, though, you know, too. He can really use his athleticism, but why? You know? If he can just power them the way he does . . .”
So they’re star tackles of the year 2017, and it should be clear by now that, between the two, Wilkins talks more. Lawrence talks less. You might listen to seven minutes of interview tape before you hear Lawrence’s voice. In a telltale exchange, the affable Wilkins wisecracks on about how he’s helping to raise Lawrence: “I take him to the park. Take him to get his hair cut. Different things like that, you know. Go play basketball together. Teach him how to talk to girls.”
Lawrence: “Oh, man.”
“Everybody loves Dexter,” Swinney said. “He just has this humble spirit to him. He has a presence, and obviously when he walks into a room, you just go, ‘Holy cow.’ But he just has a sweetness and a gentleness to him.”
Wilkins “is either going to be president of the United States, or he’ll know him real well,” Swinney said. As a willing leader, Wilkins readily addresses matters such as one reportedly terrible recent scrimmage from the defense, agreeing that it was terrible but reminding, “No one died.”
Said Lawrence: “He doesn’t treat anyone differently from the last walk-on on the team to the top guy on the team.”
Here’s another August, when a banner season with a star quarterback has yielded to a hopeful season with star tackles who might even lure sober eyeballs to study them during games. Maybe.
“In general, well, we’re not scoring touchdowns,” Wilkins said of tackles.
“Well, you know,” he needled Lawrence, “I’ve been fortunate enough to score one.”
He said, “I know Big Dex wants to be like his big brother and get a touchdown, but he’ll have to wait his turn.”
If that turn does come, it might even look like the whole 21st century.
More college football preview coverage: