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Lawrence, Wilkins give Clemson dynamic duo on defense

Defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence (90) and defensive lineman Christian Wilkins (42) have given Dabo Swinney and Clemson fans plenty to smile about. Joshua S. Kelly/USA Today Sports

CLEMSON, S.C. -- When news broke that Clemson's Dexter Lawrence had been named the ACC’s top defensive freshman, a teammate on the defensive line was quick to offer congratulations -- sort of.

It was certainly an honor, sophomore Christian Wilkins told Lawrence, but it’s not like the ACC boasted a wealth of great freshmen on defense this year. It must have just been a lack of competition, Wilkins teased.

This was all tongue-in-cheek, of course. There’s little doubt that Lawrence, a 340-pound behemoth in the middle of the Tigers’ line, was one of the best freshmen in America, but Wilkins' job as de facto big brother means he needs to keep the kid from getting a big head. That means that every pat on the back is accompanied by a little chiding, too.

Wilkins can’t help it. He’s the youngest of eight children, and he’s spent his entire life facing two inescapable facts: He was always the butt of his older siblings’ jokes, and he desperately wanted a little brother to tease, too.

“He may be bigger than me,” said Wilkins, who weighs 310, “but I’ll still put him in a headlock if I have to.”

This is the routine for Wilkins and Lawrence, arguably the best tandem of young defensive linemen in the country and perhaps the key to a Clemson win over Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl on Saturday. Wilkins pokes and prods, Lawrence takes it with a bemused detachment, and the two remain virtually inseparable.

They both start on Clemson’s line, Wilkins filling in on the edge, Lawrence dominating the middle. Before each snap, they’ll exchange the same battle plan: Meet you at the quarterback.

They both pull double duty on Clemson’s jumbo package on offense, working as blockers on short-yardage plays. Lawrence’s role is simple, as head coach Dabo Swinney said: “Just take your 340 [pounds] and go that way.” Wilkins has had a little more to do, catching a touchdown and running for a big gain on a fake punt. Wilkins explains he’s simply the better athlete.

Away from the field, they’ll plant themselves in front of the TV battling in "NBA 2K" or go toe-to-toe on a real basketball court, a combined 650 pounds of inertia warring for territory in the paint.

“He’ll definitely say he’s better,” Lawrence said, “but I’ve got him.”

It’s a perfect match for the Tigers, with the dynamic duo dominating offensive lines all season. But the real beauty for Clemson is they’ve just scratched the surface, and they’re continually pushing each other to get better.

A year ago, Lawrence was the No. 6 recruit in the country, a five-star stud who matched a gargantuan frame with inexplicable athleticism and, it turned out, a sweet, understated personality. He was the gentle giant, straight from central casting. He reminded Swinney an awful lot of another big, affable kid who’d arrived at Clemson in 2015 and made an instant impact. So when the coach looked to lock down Lawrence’s commitment, he knew exactly whom to bring in to close the deal. Lawrence and his family arrived on campus, and Wilkins was there to greet them.

“Anytime you have such a dynamic, ultra-positive, very articulate energy [as Wilkins] and you can share that with a prospect, it can be beneficial,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “I think they immediately clicked. That compatibility, it was a great match.”

They toured Clemson, met the team and ate a nice dinner, and by the end of their first day together, they already felt like lifelong friends. Lawrence was a good kid from North Carolina, Wilkins a small-school standout from New England, but they were kindred spirits.

"They're exhausting their moments in college, and it should be the best time. A lot of times, guys are too cool for that or focused on all the stresses of life or trying to meet everybody else's expectations. Those guys, they get it."

Dabo Swinney

Wilkins had already made his mark as a true freshman at Clemson both on and off the field. From the day he arrived, he carried himself with an air of confidence and never shied away from speaking up in the locker room. He was the kind of player everyone gravitated toward, despite his youth.

“His maturity is way beyond his years,” Swinney said of Wilkins. “It's like coaching a senior.”

Lawrence saw Wilkins as an archetype. He wanted to follow in those footsteps, blossom in his freshman season, earn the respect of the locker room quickly. More than anything, Lawrence wanted the challenge of playing next to someone with as much talent as he had.

“That’s why I came here,” Lawrence said. “I wanted someone to compete with every day.”

The first thing Wilkins told Lawrence upon arrival was that he’d need to work to be great. So each morning during the offseason, Lawrence’s phone would buzz with a message from big brother: Time to go to work.

They’d head to the practice fields, a contingent of other defenders in tow, and spend hours smoothing out the finest points of playing on the defensive line -- footwork, hand placement, memorizing the playbook. Some days were tougher than others, but the more Wilkins pushed, the more Lawrence worked.

“He gets that he’s the younger guy,” Wilkins said. “He has that respect. He listens. That goes to show why he’s such a great player. He’s not trying to come in like he’s a big, tough guy. He can dominate, but he also takes in everything from people who’ve been there and done that.”

Indeed, Lawrence is a big, tough guy. And to be sure, he can dominate. The numbers Swinney spouted off in advance of the Fiesta Bowl were mind-boggling. He arrived on campus able to bench-press 225 pounds 32 times, a number that would’ve tied for fourth at this year’s NFL combine. At 342 pounds, Lawrence checked in with just 18 percent body fat.

That last part is kind of important, too, because as soon as Lawrence arrived at Clemson, Wilkins had already drafted him into a cadre of players dressing up for Halloween as the Power Rangers.

“When I first got here, he asked what Power Ranger I wanted to be,” Lawrence remembers.

White, blue and pink were the options remaining. Lawrence never hesitated.

“I went with the pink,” Lawrence said.

The results were … interesting.

The players ended up at Venables' house, and the Clemson coordinator insisted photos be taken.

“No one was going to believe it,” Venables said.

Soon, the pictures were on Twitter, and the images went viral. Lawrence, dressed in tight-fitting pink spandex, stole the show. He looked so good he earned the nickname “Big Dexy,” a moniker virtually everyone on the team addresses him by now.

But what stood out to Venables wasn’t the big men who looked so svelte crammed into spandex. It was that they’d donned the costumes in the first place and showed off the pictures to the world.

“That’s the kind of guys they are,” Venables said. “They’re exhausting their moments in college, and it should be the best time. A lot of times, guys are too cool for that or focused on all the stresses of life or trying to meet everybody else’s expectations. Those guys, they get it.”

They’re the guys who will be the last ones on the practice field, but also, as Swinney said, they’re eager to sit on Santa’s lap at the coach’s recent Christmas party. (Note from Swinney: Santa survived.)

“They love people, love life; they’re passionate about being great at everything they do,” Swinney said. “And you can’t give them enough. Whatever you ask them to do, they do it with a smile on their face.”

They’re giving Clemson fans plenty to smile about, too.

Big brother has blossomed into arguably the most dynamic big man in the country. Little brother has looked like a dominant veteran. They’re anchoring a defense poised for a second straight playoff appearance, and they’re really just getting started.

That’s probably the best thing about their relationship, Swinney said. They’ve managed to soak in every moment, but they’ve never been satisfied. They’re living in the moment but working for the future. They’re as close as family, but they’re competing for every snap.

“I want him to be the best he can be,” Wilkins said. “If that’s better than me, I’m all for that.”