CLEMSON, S.C. – They are expected again for Halloween, perhaps the final encore – in what has become an annual appearance. Along with all of the tykes dressed as skeletons or Chewbaccas or Clemson football players, five supersized Power Rangers will wander through this sleepy little college town, ringing doorbells, expecting candy.
But it’s all so mysterious.
“Power Rangers? Who are the Power Rangers?” says Austin Bryant, Clemson’s senior defensive end.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” says Christian Wilkins, the Tigers’ senior defensive tackle.
Apparently, the first rule of Power Rangers is, don’t talk about Power Rangers. Except, of course, they already have. Or they once did, before the requirement for anonymity became so stringent.
“We’re tough. We never give up. We fight the forces of evil,” said Wilkins two years ago, after the Power Rangers made their first Halloween appearance, back when keeping identities secret was apparently not such a big deal.
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But the other takeaway is this: Clemson’s defensive linemen, that collection of massive guys who together form the most imposing defensive front in college football – and who do not mind the “silliness,” as defensive coordinator Brent Venables puts it, of stuffing themselves into those costumes on Halloween – are mostly done with the hoopla.
When three of the Tigers’ four starters – Wilkins, Bryant and defensive tackle Clelin Ferrell – decided last January to stay in school rather than head off to the NFL, keeping them united with junior defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence for one more season, the hype inflated to enormity. Eventually, they admit, it grew tiresome. But it was largely warranted.
Much has been made of Clemson’s move to true freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, which has jump started the offense. But the backbone of the Tigers’ hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff, again, and winning the national championship, again, remains that fierce, fast defense.
Through eight games, Clemson is allowing 3.94 yards per play. That’s second nationally only to Michigan (3.71). For context, when the Tigers won the national championship two years ago, they allowed 4.63 yards per play (which ranked fifth nationally).
Clemson is allowing 2.24 yards per rush (which includes 26 sacks). The starting defensive linemen – they started calling themselves the Power Rangers a couple of years back, because of Wilkins' childhood affinity for the TV show – have combined for 12 sacks, 25.5 tackles for loss and 29 quarterback pressures.
It all makes for a scary prospect for opponents. But according to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, their impact is more than production from the defensive linemen. He cites their work ethic and leadership, noting how they’ve made it a point to instruct younger teammates.
“They’re just great leaders,” Swinney says. “Really talented players who have all this experience, but more importantly this unbelievable commitment. These guys set the tempo for everything. They’re modeling – we have some really talented guys that are gonna take over for them next year that are getting to see firsthand how you do things.
“They are really just rare people. To have them all collectively here together at one time is really special, especially at that position.”
They insist there was not a collective decision to return. But they acknowledge that momentum mattered; one decided to stay and soon enough all three had. And they didn’t do it on a whim, but after surveying NFL front office personnel, asking for input on how they could improve if they waited a year.
“We all felt like it would be beneficial for us to come back,” Wilkins says.
And yet there’s also this:
“They’re just having fun, you know? As opposed to (being) too cool for school, they’re just embracing every moment,” Venables says. “Everybody wants to get on to the next thing. They want to enjoy this thing.”
There’s also the knowledge that everything changes at the next level. A year from now, if one of them dons a Power Ranger costume, it’ll likely be part of some type of rookie hazing experience.
“We appreciate this opportunity and this time in our lives,” Wilkins says, “knowing we’re not gonna get it back and we’re probably never gonna have a time like this in our lives, no matter how much ball we play or how much fun we have playing ball. … (The NFL) is definitely different. You’re not around the guys as much. Grown men go home to their families. They’re not hanging around playing video games after practice, stuff like that, so it’s definitely gonna be different next year or the rest of my career. It’s definitely just an extra point of emphasis for all of us to enjoy our time here.”
It’s something that infuses the Clemson program. Along with the typical college football precepts – hard work, focusing less on results and more on process, etc. – Swinney emphasizes having fun. And the epitome might not be so much the Tigers’ two-year-old football facility (which you might have heard features a bowling alley, golf simulator, a movie theater, miniature golf, whiffle ball and yeah, a slide) as the play call last week against Florida State.
Late in the second quarter of what would become a 59-10 rout, the Tigers led 14-0 and faced third-and-goal at the Seminoles’ 1. Lawrence lined up at fullback. Wilkins behind him at tailback – a whopping 665 pounds of potential energy. Wilkins took a handoff and followed Lawrence into the end zone.
“I definitely want to thank the other running backs,” Wilkins told reporters later (note the adjective “other”), adding: “I think this was kind of for Coach to shut me up, because I’ve been in his ear a lot about playing quarterback. But I’m still going to be after him next week and the week after that and the week after that until he lets me play quarterback.”
Meanwhile, Wilkins’ offensive action let his defensive linemates envious. Bryant says wants a handoff, “or something – a fade route, or a tight end dump. We need to put that in the playbook soon.”
Who knows – given Bryant’s freakish athletic ability and Swinney’s penchant for fun – it could happen. And given Clemson’s continued roll through a soft ACC schedule, so could Wilkin’s desired shot at quarterback. More important is that it appears Wilkins, Bryant, Lawrence and Ferrell will all be after opposing quarterbacks and running backs next week and the week after that and the week after that.
It’s a luxury that provides Clemson with a very realistic shot at winning its second national title in three seasons.
“I think we’re improving at the rate we want to,” Bryant says. “But I think we have so much more room for improvement. I don’t think anyone on our team has played their best game. That’s what makes us scary.”
Which brings us back to the prospect of those supersized Power Rangers appearing again in Clemson.
“If I were a Power Ranger,” says Bryant, “Halloween would be a good time to make an appearance. I don’t know where four large beings at Clemson would come from or what they’d be doing here. It’s an interesting spectacle.”
And if the sight of those guys stuffed into costumes is “comical,” as Swinney puts it, then consider what opponents must think, every Saturday, when these guys are wearing their real superhero suits.
“They’re really good players,” Venables says. “They can make some special plays for you. And they have.”
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