Christian, what are you doing, man? You're a former 5-star recruit. You've been talked about for three years; you've been a starter for three years. You have health, you have hype, you have it all on your side. You're not going to get better with another year of wear and tear. You're already pretty good considering your limited athletic ceiling. Just go pro! Are you seriously telling me you're going to risk being hurt or less productive in a senior season just to try to get revenge on the unstoppable Alabama in a championship game where there's no guarantee your team even makes it? Alright. Whatever.
Yeah, whatever is right, Trev, you big dummy.
That was me about 13 months ago when Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins and the rest of his Tigers defensive line-mates decided to all come back for one more season together in Death Valley. In it, Wilkins proved me wrong in just about every way. He had career highs in tackles for loss and sacks, and the reason for that is because he showed an even better understanding of his skills and how to execute them than he had the previous season. He also improved -- or maybe just brought to light -- his character outlook, too, as he has since been raved about in the national media as the ultimate teammate.
And, oh yeah, they beat Alabama in the National Championship Game, too.
I mentioned it briefly before but beyond the natural football talent, Wilkins is a 5-star person as much as he is a former 5-star recruit. He's been praised unanimously by his teammates and coaching staff for who he is on and off the field
"He's just a guy who truly, truly enjoys every day," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said of Wilkins. "He likes practice, he likes meetings, he likes the training. He just has that mindset that it takes to be great, and he's rubbed off on so many people during his time here. He'll do anything you ask him to do, and he believes he can do anything."
"I try to be a person of excellence in everything I do, but I wouldn't be playing the game if I didn't absolutely love it," Wilkins said. "Every time I step on a field, I still have an 8-year-old's innocence about it. I love putting thigh pads in my pants and pulling them on. This game has been a ticket for me, and I'm truly in love with it. Yeah, I care about a lot of things but I realize football is going to end for me one day. That's why I try to be diverse in other areas."
Football is everything to Wilkins, likely because he treats it like his family. As a man who came from a strong sense of family growing up, when tragedy struck during Wilkins' teenage years, it shook him. In a story told by Chase Goodbread of NFL.com, Wilkins' grandfather, a man who was the closest father figure to Wilkins, was accidentally killed when a SWAT team raided their home due to a narcotics investigation against one of his grandfather's stepsons. It was a make or break moment for Wilkins at such a young age, just 15 years old at the time of his grandfather's death. He decided to make the most of it rather than break under the unfortunate circumstances.
Wilkins didn't let it keep him down, and in fact, he said he wears No. 42 to bring honor to his grandfather -- it motivates him. It's that which kept Wilkins going early on, and is something that has clearly continued throughout his football career.
After a stellar collegiate career, as well as growth personally and in his play, Wilkins is ready to take the next step. What exactly does he have to offer NFL teams, you ask? Let's take a look in this week's 5-Play Prospect column.
Play No. 1: See Gap; Hit Gap
Shooting gaps is an art. As an interior defensive lineman, most of the time you're a giant 6-foot-something, 300-something pounder who is there to eat space in the middle and deal with as many bodies as you can. But it's the ones that can recognize spacing in the offensive line and weak spots before the snap that make the disruption in the backfield and, in turn, are more successful -- also the ones that get drafted higher and paid more.
Wilkins knows how to shoot a gap. He understand's both angles and leverage when lining up in between offensive linemen, and can so easily attack weak points with a great first step off the snap.
As you can see in the clip above, Wilkins is not only quick but he's smart. He knows how to be patient when picking where to attack the offensive line, and is about as slippery as a 300-pound player can be when wiggling through the line of scrimmage. Getting into the backfield with regularity is an art, and Wilkins has the first step explosiveness and pre-snap recognition to do it often.
Play No. 2: Catch These Hands
As I watched Wilkins' film, the skill in his game that continue to pop out at me with regularity is how good he is with his hands. Whether it's placing his hands in the correct areas on offensive linemen for him to maintain push and leverage or it's just him disengaging or throwing off blocks completely, Wilkins' hands are both active and strong at all times.
As seen in the play above, whether it was right off the snap or even later in the reps as he took on an extra blocker, Wilkins is so good and natural with his hands that he's able to keep his eyes on the ball/ball carrier and still throw blockers to the side. Being able to keep your eyes on the target is a skill in and of itself.
As noted before, not only are Wilkins' hands fast but they are strong. Wilkins loves to use the swim move to get around offensive linemen, and his strong hands are a reason why he is able to push offensive linemen's arms and hands off of him with such ease.
Good hand usage is so important for interior defensive line play, and Wilkins checks that box.
Play No. 3: Don't Reach
I'm just going to be straight forward with you here: don't zone block against Wilkins, you won't be able to reach him.
Wilkins' first step is so good that he is a zone blocking scheme's worst nightmare. Of the games I watched, I rarely, if at all, saw him get beat to a reach block. In fact, Wilikns was often the one busting ZBS plays due to his ability to recognize the concept, explode off the snap and step into the gap.
That play above was against Boston College interior offensive lineman Chris Lindstrom, who is considered to be a Top 50 offensive guard by many.
Even he didn't stand a chance.
Wilkins gives zone blocking schemes so much trouble because he's always moving. He has a fantastic motor for a guy who is over 300 pounds, and you can see that as he often beats offensive linemen to their spot on movement concepts that shift the offensive line left or right.
Wilkins combining his quickness, anticipation, strong hands and relentless motor make him a one-man anti-ZBS machine.
Play No. 4: No Double Trouble
Playing on the interior, especially at nose tackle, on occasion, means that you're going to take on a lot of double teams. It's important that you not only have the size but the strength to hold your own, when they occur. This is why there are normally weight thresholds with interior defensive linemen. Less free space and more clutter means that to control the line of scrimmage you have to have size -- unless you come from an alien planet like Aaron Donald.
As an interior defensive linemen who does have pass rush potential with how quick he is (which goes into his style of play), Wilkins can get caught, at times, getting a little overzealous when it comes to shooting a gap and it ends up being a double on him. During those times, he can get knocked back. But for the most part, as shown above, Wilkins is pretty good at maintaining the line of scrimmage in run defense, and can hold up well.
Other times, Wilkins can just straight up be dominant. Wilkins can convert his first step into power so well and so smooth that he can even break some double teams on run plays. He holds up well enough that the plays like the one above are worth it for him to be a full-time three down lineman.
Play No. 5: A Football Guy
Yes, this is a play of 300-pound Christian Wilkins running a touchdown in from the goal line. Does this matter for analysis of him playing defensive tackle? No. But it does matter, as a whole, when you go back to what I referenced earlier with Wilkins just loving the game of football.
Wilkins will do whatever you want him to -- and chances are he'll be really good at it. He'll play nose tackle, 3-technique, 5-technique, running back. heck, he even played defensive line on punt team for years.
To be honest, I see a lot of Gerald McCoy in Christian Wilkins. Both have a crazy good first step and love to use it to shoot gaps up the middle. Both love to uses fast, strong hands with a swim move as their go-to. But Both can also get caught, at times, trying to shoot a gap and in doing so might get washed out of a play or out of their gap assignment. More often than not, however, what they do well outweighs the times they get caught.
If you look at Wilkins as a whole, not only are you getting a talent football player, you're getting a phenomenal teammate, a teachable pro and a guy who you'll be proud of to have on your team. That's ultimately why I think Wilkins ends up being a Top 15 selection in this class.