CLEMSON, S.C. — Their bond began with a break-in.
With playbooks in hand, they began running drills. There were a few hoots and hollers, as well, reverberating off the empty stands inside the stadium also known as Death Valley.
“That’s when I kind of knew we’ve really got a chance to be special,” Bryant said.
Two weeks ago, that quartet — along with Dexter Lawrence, who joined the group in 2016 — were at Clemson’s indoor practice facility wearing Power Rangers headbands. It was a reminder of the first time the five dressed up as their favorite superheroes on Halloween and engaged in a playful journey through campus.
It also was a reminder of how special this group has become, why representatives from all 32 NFL teams converged on this sleepy little town in the far corner of South Carolina for Clemson’s pro day. The former teammates wanted the football world to witness their bond and show the hype heading into the draft is justified.
“Our motto was [that] we can be one of the best draft classes ever to come through Clemson,” Wilkins said. “We knew we’d have a chance to do something special, something great, something that’s never been done before.”
Ferrell, Wilkins, Lawrence and Bryant have a chance to be selected in the first round, which would make draft history, although Bryant is a long shot for Day 1. North Carolina State had a record three defensive linemen (Mario Williams, Manny Lawson and John McCargo) selected in the first round in 2006. Lawson went on to play linebacker in the NFL.
Ferrell, Wilkins and Bryant could have gone to the NFL a year ago, but they all decided to return this season to go for a second national championship in three years.
Mission accomplished. The Tigers went 15-0, dismantling Alabama 44-16 in the title game.
Now their sights are on the draft and fulfilling their goal.
“We want to be the greatest ever,” Lawrence said. “In college, we kind of worked at that every day. We don’t feel anyone can take that from us.”
Wilkins was explaining the potential side bets and trash talking about which Clemson lineman will be selected first when he had a scary thought — at least to him.
“Just for the life of me, I hope Clelin does not get drafted ahead of me,” he said. “I will be the most upset human being in the world. … If the rest get drafted above me, move on. I just don’t want to deal with Cle. I hope I go one pick before Cle just to rub it in his face. I know I’m going to get it bad if he goes before me.”
Ferrell wasn’t surprised by this.
“Because he’s always trying to one-up me,” he said. “I could care less where we get drafted. At the end of the day, I’ll just be happy to hear my name called.”
Ferrell paused, then added: “If I am drafted ahead of him, I might give him a cold call.”
His 21 sacks the past two seasons, including 11.5 as a senior, are hard to ignore. At 6-foot-4 and 264 pounds, his ability to play end in a 3-4 scheme or tackle in a 4-3 also is a factor, particularly for a team such as Carolina, which plans to implement both in 2019.
Projections show Lawrence (6-4, 342 pounds) likely will be the second Clemson lineman taken. He also could play in a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. He wasn’t known as a great pass-rusher — he had 10 sacks in three college seasons — but he consistently commanded double-teams, which allowed others to get to the quarterback.
Wilkins (6-3, 315 pounds) showed he can wreak havoc on quarterbacks, with 16 sacks and 40.5 tackles for loss in four seasons. He’s also athletic enough to play multiple positions, including fullback, where he caught a touchdown pass and rushed for two scores.
Bryant (6-4, 271 pounds) is the wild card in making this a first-round sweep for the starting linemen. He was unable to participate in drills at the combine and on pro day after having surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle, an injury he played through much of last season. He has an ability to play end in a 4-3 or outside linebacker in a 3-4, and he showed consistency with 8.5 sacks in each of his last two seasons.
Most mock drafts have Bryant as a later-round selection.
Huggins (6-3, 305 pounds) is a likely second- or third-day selection. He gets overshadowed by the starters, although he was stout when replacing Lawrence for the two playoff victories after the All-America tackle was suspended for testing positive for the banned performance-enhancing drug ostarine.
With Ferrell, Lawrence and Wilkins almost certain first-round locks, the trio will make Clemson history. The Tigers never have had more than two players taken in the first round. They could double that in 2019, with cornerback Trayvon Mullen projecting as a first- or second-round pick.
A school-record 11 Clemson players were invited to the NFL combine. If all are drafted, that would break the school record of 10 draftees, set in 1983, two years after coach Danny Ford led the Tigers to their first national title.
Current Clemson coach Dabo Swinney had nine draft picks in 2016. So this group is, as Bryant predicted, special.
“These guys, they know who we are,” Swinney said, referring to the general managers, coaches and scouts at pro day. “I always tell them if it’s close, take the guy from Clemson. He’s going to make you better. And he’s going to make the team.”
Ford’s teams had players such as Jim Stuckey (first round, 1979), Jeff Bryant (first round, 1981), William “Refrigerator” Perry (first round, 1984) and his brother Michael Dean Perry (second round, 1987).
The current group takes pride in that pedigree and how Clemson linemen are groomed for position flexibility.
“There’s not a team where you couldn’t find a spot for me on the defense,” said Ferrell, who played defensive line and linebacker for the Tigers.
Each also believes he brings something special to the locker room in terms of leadership, including Lawrence. His draft stock doesn’t seem to have been affected much by his suspension.
“You know, I feel like [when] that happened, it was able to help me show my character, show who I really am, show my emotions, just how I handled things like that adversity,” Lawrence said.
Wilkins said the team that drafts him will get the “total package.”
“I’m the type of guy you want to be that monster on the field, but you’ll have me babysit your kids or your grandkids,” he said. “That type of guy that can improve your organization no matter what.”
Their camaraderie also helps their draft stock.
“That’s what Dabo has been preaching ever since he got the job,” said Woody McCorvey, Clemson’s associate athletic director for football administration. “It shows you they enjoy being around each other and they’re not being selfish. They were really goal-oriented and focused on being able to win another national championship.
“We can only do so much as a staff and coaches, but when you’ve got those type of players that show they’re willing to give it up and sacrifice to the team, that’s important. All these NFL people are always talking about the locker room, so you know that’s important to them.”
The history that the Clemson defensive linemen hope to establish on draft night in reality was established before they even arrived. Veteran players took them under their wings just the way they’ve taken younger players under theirs.
There were the typical fights along the way, as there are among family members. On the field, though, the brotherhood made each stronger.
“Everything has helped us grow to the kind of people we are today,” Ferrell said. “A lot of people think very high of us as a group, and that just tells us this is a relationship we feel like helped mold each other’s character.
“I can’t wait to see what the future holds for us.”