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Wilkins, Mayfield and the college football heels fans love and opponents love to hate

Bill Frakes/ESPN

If you wanted to tell the story of Clemson's run through last season's College Football Playoff in GIF form, Christian Wilkins has you covered.

First, there's the one he wishes hadn't gone viral. It came in the Fiesta Bowl, when Twitter users noticed some interesting post-whistle tactics employed by the Tigers' defensive lineman. He had been the last guy in on a tackle of Ohio State's Curtis Samuel, and as the Buckeyes' tailback lay prone on the ground, Wilkins grabbed a handful of Samuel's ... personal area.

In the aftermath, Wilkins apologized for the overtness of it all, but he mostly chalked it up as part of the game, a little extracurricular that's common when two teams are waging a psychological war amid their physical battles.

"It's an art," Clemson offensive lineman Sean Pollard said. "That story, he apologized and took the repercussions. But it's an art getting in someone's head. There's not many people that can act on pure aggression, so if you've gotten under their skin, you've already won."

And make no mistake, Wilkins is an artist when it comes to mind games. Pollard has been on the receiving end, too. As a true freshman last year, Pollard endured a litany of critiques from Wilkins during practice, each designed to rattle Pollard before the next snap, just to see how the kid would handle it. It's a rite of passage for the young guys, even when they're on Wilkins' side. Dexter Lawrence is perhaps Wilkins' favorite target, even if they line up alongside each other on the defensive line. Wilkins just likes to tease his pal, and the prodding has pushed Lawrence, now a sophomore, to come out of his shell a bit more, too.

Against teammates, it's usually jokes. "He likes to tell the offensive linemen how ugly they are," Lawrence said. Against opponents, the tone changes, with Wilkins gleefully reminding his adversaries of their particular ineptitude. In either case, it's rare to catch Wilkins in a moment of silence.

But there's a method to all of it, and the fact that his crotch grab was the biggest story to come of Clemson's utter dominance of the Buckeyes only illustrated its success. Wilkins owned his opponent, and the game was so lopsided that a four-second clip of a post-tackle butt-squeeze was the most interesting angle for debate afterward.

The second Wilkins highlight came after Clemson upended Alabama to secure the championship. In front of the stage, covered in confetti, Wilkins -- all 300 pounds of him -- shimmied, shook and, in a feat of true athletic prowess, lifted his right leg to a 90-degree angle, held for a fraction of a second, then tilted over into a perfect split.

The dance routine offered the perfect summation of Clemson's elation -- a GIF worth a thousand words -- and it quickly took on a life of its own. Clemson fans loved it and eagerly turned the clip into a meme that, while not quite Crying Jordan, has proven to be incredibly versatile.

"People are creative," Wilkins said. "They're real funny. They're also really bored."

It's also funny that, on a team with Deshaun Watson and Mike Williams and perhaps the most gregarious coach in the country, it was Wilkins who became the breakout star of Clemson's playoff run. He gets recognized virtually everywhere he goes now -- from Clemson to his hometown in Massachusetts -- and in truth, it's attention he's not entirely eager to embrace. But it comes with the territory, and, after three years of stepping into the spotlight whenever the opportunity arose, Wilkins isn't complaining now.

"I've always felt like it's important to share your story," Wilkins said.

Twenty years ago, Wilkins' extroverted personality would've fit nicely in the world of college football that had embraced everyone from Brian Bosworth to Steve Spurrier, as much for what they said off the field as what they did on it. But these days, Wilkins is an outlier. For players in the era of social media, there's honor in keeping your mouth shut. The sport has followed a near militaristic model, where the coach does the talking and the rest of the team repeats bland platitudes.

At many schools, freshmen don't speak to the media. Others bar assistant coaches from public interactions. Places such as LSU, Texas and Notre Dame have all cracked down on media time this offseason, and even at Clemson, players refrain from using Twitter throughout the season to avoid any potential distractions.

"You've got to be politically correct," said Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield, a player known for confident sound bites. "You don't want to put bulletin board material up for somebody else's team room, you don't want to make anybody mad."

Indeed, the smallest perceived slight can become fodder for the opposition. A mildly colorful quote goes viral in minutes. Ten years ago, no one would've noticed Wilkins' crotch grab against Ohio State, and even if they did, they wouldn't have had Facebook or Twitter or Reddit to share the screen grab with the world. Now, a moment like that can define a player. Just ask the now-50-year-old Mike Gundy how one moment of hyperbole can last a lifetime.

Mayfield is a rarity these days, the star who's happy to speak his mind.

"It probably comes from a lack of self-confidence as a kid," Mayfield said, "and then I just realized, I don't care what anyone thinks."

That's not entirely true, of course. Mayfield cares a lot, and he doesn't hide those feelings.

Earlier this month, Mayfield was strolling through Oklahoma's locker room, the TVs overhead blaring the latest debate about the upcoming college football season. The talking heads on the screen were hyping Oklahoma State, and that alone was enough to annoy Mayfield. But the implication that his rivals had a far better group of receivers than he did was beyond the pail.

"You see stuff," he said, "whether you want to see it or not."

So Mayfield pulled out his phone, opened Twitter and blasted out a message to the world.

"Y'all are going to have to show some respect for my receivers," he tweeted. "People saying I don't have help, say what you want about me. Not my guys."

By Mayfield's standards, this was pretty tame.

A former walk-on at Texas Tech, Mayfield has always carried a rather sizable chip on his shoulder, and it's obvious nearly every time he speaks. He has talked smack on rivals, feuded with his former team, hyped his own, battled TCU coach Gary Patterson over a perceived recruiting slight and wrestled the NCAA to get rules about transfers tweaked.

"Teams don't like me, other fan bases -- and I can't blame them," he said. "It might sound like an A-hole mentality, but if you don't like me, I truly don't care."

Mayfield and Wilkins can afford a more cavalier approach. They've got the hardware to back it up. At South Carolina, sophomore QB Jake Bentley didn't get the same latitude, enduring months of social media harassment -- the worst of it by a couple of elderly female Clemson fans, he said -- after he dared suggest that his team was just as talented as the national champion Tigers.

"They were killing me," Bentley said of his geriatric tormentors. "That's part of the reason you stay off Twitter. I'm trying not to see that during the season."

By nature, Bentley is outgoing. He's boisterous and eager, and he jubilantly celebrates success. What he noticed about his freshman season at South Carolina, however, is that struggles pushed him into a shell. It's easy to talk big when everything is clicking into place, but he wanted to keep that same energy when things were bad.

"Guys see me throw a touchdown and pumping my fist, so I feel like I've got to be the same upbeat guy when things go bad," Bentley said. "It's keeping the energy up, the positive energy."

So who cares if his statement sounded preposterous? As George Costanza once said, "It's not a lie if you believe it," and Bentley was out to convince his team, beyond all evidence, that it was good enough to play with Clemson. If the Gamecocks worked a little harder, prepped a little more, believed a bit stronger, well, why couldn't they win?

"That's all it was," Bentley said. "It wasn't to stir [Clemson] up. It was for our team. We're not worried about anybody else. We've got to come in and work every day to get better, and if we rally around each other, we'll be good."

If the message reached his teammates, however, it reached Clemson, too. So Bentley can sack his Twitter habit for the season, but when the old rivals face off again in late November, his quote, no doubt, will enjoy new life.

That's why the incentive in college football usually isn't to tell your story, to speak up, to play to the cameras. It's to perform on the field and blend into the scenery off it. That's what makes players like Wilkins and Mayfield so enjoyable now. For their teammates and fans, they're the life of the party. They're speaking their mind, enjoying the ride. For their opponents, they're the heels, the enemy. But that's OK, too. Being the bad guy can be fun, too.

"It doesn't matter what people think as long as you're winning and the guys on your team love you," Wilkins said.

And that's the real distinction between the person and the persona. Wilkins might offend his rivals from time to time, but, at heart, he loves every second of the ride.

"He's like that big old St. Bernard," defensive end Clelin Ferrell said. "He jumps on you, licks your face, but he still knocks you down. He knocks over everything while he's running over to you."

But if Ferrell sees a tactless St. Bernard, Wilkins' defensive coordinator sees something more Machiavellian. The showmanship, the energy, the ferocity, it's not an act, and it's not by accident.

"He's not trying to be a comedian," Brent Venables said. "He's smart in how he sets stuff up. He's not impulsive. He's not thinking, 'Oh man, did I say that? Did I do that?' Things are well thought out. And he's very comfortable in that role."

In other words, it takes the right kind of player to attack the spotlight with such glee, and that, as much as anything, is what has become rare in college football these days. The narrative doesn't evolve slowly, but instead goes viral in an instant. The quotes aren't aimed at a local fan base, but instead are printed nationwide. The energy can't be reserved for the cameras, because the cameras are everywhere. How many guys can really handle that?

"He just has this endearing quality about him, where he just inspires you," Venables said. "Whether you're a coach or a teammate or just somebody in the lunch line. He loves life, and he loves people, and he brings out the best qualities in those he's around."

And, yes, he's a heck of a dancer, too.