CLEMSON, S.C. -- A stiflingly hot August practice has just ended, and Christian Wilkins approaches a cadre of reporters with uncharacteristic disdain. His frazzled, sweat-soaked beard frames a grimace, and he tosses his helmet to the ground as he slumps his 300-pound frame against the wall. This all feels like a show, but he wants to be clear: He doesn't like the hype and attention and fawning praise for what might be the best defensive line in college football history. He's doing this begrudgingly.
The first few questions are rudimentary. Wilkins can't help but expound, but his answers lack their usual wry humor. Then a cell phone rings in the pocket of one of the reporters. The ring tone is the refrain from "Don't Stop Believin'."
Wilkins stops cold.
"Journey?" he beams. "Nice."
That's all it takes. Wilkins can't hide who he is -- the fun-loving, trash-talking giant whose résumé at Clemson includes doing celebratory splits, wearing spandex costumes, scandalously dancing with fans and grabbing the posterior of an Ohio State opponent.
He's not supposed to be having fun, but he does all kinds of things a normal human being would find excruciating that, for Wilkins and his teammates, are a source of entertainment. That's his personal ethos, and it's infectious.
A few feet away, Clelin Ferrell is doing his best to argue that he's not interested in all the attention either, a far cry from his show-stealing performance at the annual ACC Kickoff, when he riffed on everything from the gargantuan expectations his team faces to the number of yards Justify would rack up if the horse were to run against Clemson's defense. ("I'd give him 50," Ferrell said. "He's a Triple Crown winner, so you can't disrespect him.")
Then there's Dexter Lawrence, the hulking beast of a defensive tackle who calls himself an observer, but that facade has started to crack under the weight of Wilkins' and Ferrell's personalities. He's mischievous in a way that ensures someone else will get blamed.
And there's Austin Bryant, who on any other roster would be a household name. Here, he's the opening act with three headliners, which Ferrell said gives him "little-man syndrome in a big man's body."
Bryant began this whole interview session by suggesting that he and his linemates had endured a true burden when they posed, earlier in the summer, for the photo that would eventually grace the cover of Sports Illustrated.
"I mean, it's cool," he says. "Maybe in 15, 20 years, I'll think, 'Wow.'"
Still, it was a distraction from a day of work, a process that took far too long.
Then he's prodded a little more, and the truth comes out. It was a long process -- because Wilkins couldn't stop joking around.
"He made it even longer," Bryant admits.
This is the paradox of the Tigers' defensive line. The guys who work the hardest, act the toughest, push the furthest are the same ones pulling pranks, ribbing teammates and, occasionally, donning superhero costumes in the streets of Clemson.
It was mid-January, and Dabo Swinney's phone buzzed. He looked at the caller ID. It was Wilkins.
Swinney had been waiting on this call. His defensive line featured three players who could've gone pro after last season, and while Ferrell and Bryant had already decided to return to school, Swinney was expecting different news from Wilkins. After all, Wilkins had already graduated. He was a superstar, a personality who deserved to be on the biggest stage. No one doubted his ability to play in the NFL, and while his pre-draft evaluation pegged him as a second-round selection, Swinney figured Wilkins would wow at the combine and in interviews and find his way near the top of some team's draft board.
"Coach, I just wanted to say what a special place Clemson is," Wilkins told him, an echo of the monologue he'd given Swinney when he first committed to the Tigers.
Here it comes, Swinney thought. The speech about how much he'd enjoyed his time with the Tigers, how well the staff had prepared Wilkins for what comes next. The goodbye.
"And I've decided ..."
Wilkins paused for effect.
"To come back for another year."
"He messed with me," Swinney said. "But it was a fun moment."
It was also the moment the conversation surrounding Clemson's line changed. No longer was this simply a very good line, a group with NFL talent and loads of experience. No, Wilkins' return meant this was something bigger. This was potentially historic.
For their careers, Clemson's four starting linemen have combined for 49.5 sacks, 87.5 tackles for loss, 21 pass breakups and 42 quarterback hurries, but even that undersells things.
Ferrell was hurt his senior season in high school and was forced to redshirt his first year at Clemson. He really didn't come into his own until a dominant finish to the 2016 season that helped the Tigers to a national championship.
Bryant was the hero of Clemson's Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma in 2015, stepping in for an injured Shaq Lawson at the last minute. But he got hurt, too, and missed the bulk of the 2016 season.
In Bryant's absence in 2016, Wilkins moved from defensive tackle to end, a role he handled nicely, but still one that hardly suited his size.
And then there's Lawrence, perhaps the best of the group, who hurt his foot toward the end of his freshman season and played all of 2017 at about 40 percent, he said. He literally couldn't put weight on his foot some days, and he still managed to demolish opposing linemen.
That's what makes this group so intriguing in 2018. It's not just that four players with already impressive credentials are reunited. It's that they might have just scratched the surface of what's possible, and this season could be like the final act of an Avengers movie, when the heroes all learn how to use their powers together.
What will it be like -- an experienced Bryant, Ferrell and Wilkins on a mission to impress NFL scouts, and Lawrence finally healthy and at full speed?
"A nightmare," Bryant said.
To really understand Clemson's defensive linemen, it's best to start off the field.
Ferrell, Bryant and Lawrence are all roommates, along with backup tackle Nyles Pinckney. Wilkins calls himself the "unwanted fifth roommate," though he does not pay rent.
"I'm always there, eating all their food, playing cards, sleeping on one of their beds," Wilkins said.
They play cards. They go to the movies. They're incredibly competitive playing video games. And, of course, they eat.
All four lament the decision process when dining out. They never quite agree. They'll debate for 30 minutes or an hour before finally giving in to their rumbling stomachs and, usually, going with whatever Wilkins decides.
"We try to go somewhere that there's good food and they serve a lot," Lawrence said.
Wilkins said he's seen cooks at Chipotle panic upon their arrival, which makes sense given the foursome checks in at more than 1,200 pounds. There's no hiding in plain sight. The group gets noticed.
"We don't blend in," Wilkins said. "We're all out together, and we draw a lot of attention. But we just love hanging out and being around each other."
The workaround for this problem is counterintuitive because it involves getting even more attention and, perhaps unfortunately, a lot of spandex.
"We put our morphsuits on and just run around downtown Clemson," Ferrell said.
The morphsuits, for those uninitiated, are the attire donned by the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers in the ubiquitous 1990s children's show. The outfits were purchased as part of a group Halloween costume two years ago, and they continue to be reused. Depending on your vantage point, it is either hilarious or utterly horrifying.
White, blue, green, black and -- for Lawrence -- pink uniforms are stretched over their massive frames, masks pulled over their faces to hide their secret identities, and evildoers around Clemson quake in fear. Or so you'd think.
"People look shocked, like they don't want to be helped or something," Lawrence said. "We're just trying to save the world."
The group gets a lot of stares. People whistle and honk their car horns. Linebacker Kendall Joseph once saw the linemen dressing in their morphsuits in the Clemson locker room before hatching a plan to surprise Swinney at his home. Joseph collapsed to the floor in laughter.
But the thing Joseph knows is, these guys really might be superheroes. Look at Wilkins. He's massive, but he's caught a pass on a fake punt, blocked a kick to help Clemson beat NC State, played safety in the Tigers' spring game and executed a perfect split in celebration of the team's 2016 national championship. That's not human. Or watch Bryant work an offensive lineman. His hands are so quick and strong, it's like some type of cartoonish kung fu. And how does someone the size of Lawrence -- a man pleased to have weighed in below 340 to open camp -- move with such grace and speed?
So maybe they aren't saving the world. That doesn't mean there's not something superhuman about them, and they might be the rest of college football's best hope of vanquishing the Alabama empire.
The beauty of this group, Wilkins said, is they're complementary pieces. They mesh.
Ferrell and Bryant became friends on the recruiting trail, but Wilkins was an outsider. He's from Massachusetts and, as Ferrell noted, "we don't know anybody from there."
They were all on campus together for Clemson's 2013 spring game, however, and coaches made a point of offering introductions. Wilkins was already committed to Clemson, and Swinney knew the big, boisterous kid could seal the deal with the other two.
"Coaches just said, 'Y'all are going to love this guy," Ferrell remembered. "And we did. We clicked like that, and we're inseparable now."
Lawrence joined the crew a year later, adopted by Wilkins as his little brother and indoctrinated into the D-line culture, where, as quarterback Kelly Bryant said, they have their own language.
To suggest that the relationship is without conflict, however, is untrue. For all the similarities, they bring distinct personalities.
Ferrell said Wilkins is like a Saint Bernard.
"He'll crawl in your lap and lick your face," Ferrell said.
Wilkins doesn't argue this analogy. He's big and intense and affectionate.
"Whenever I see them," Wilkins said, "I run over and give them a hug, just let them know I love them."
In Ferrell, Wilkins sees himself -- just toned down a notch. Ferrell is the youngest in a big family, the son of a mother and father who'd met in the military. He grew up pushing the limits in a strict household, and Wilkins has become the devil on Ferrell's shoulder, whispering encouragement for another prank or joke.
"When he's with us, he'll have us crying," Wilkins said.
Bryant is the middleman, somewhere between a lone voice of reason and the ringmaster of the circus. Lawrence called Bryant "bougie," a mildly disparaging way of distinguishing the lone lineman aware of how ridiculous this group has become.
Then there's Lawrence, who proclaims himself a neutral observer. He's just here to watch and learn, though Ferrell knows better.
"Dex is that guy you don't want to mess with because he can turn into the Hulk," Ferrell said. "He's like [Bruce] Banner."
This might actually be true of each member of the group. As frivolous as their interactions might look, there's something deeper there, a simmering competitiveness that means virtually every moment could erupt into a battle.
Hoops? FIFA video games? Deadlifts in the weight room? You'd better believe they're playing to win.
The trickle-down effect of that, however, is there's a rare honesty common among the group, an openness that's only shared among brothers.
"We hold each other to the highest standards in everything in our life," Wilkins said. "We have fun with each other, but we're always competing, trying to one-up. And I can cuss out Dex, and he'll shut up and take it. Cle can get on me, and I'll take it. It's a family dynamic, because we know we love each other."
For the foursome, that honesty has provided this sense of balance, a notion that, while each member of this group is a star, the sum remains greater than the individual parts.
"We could've gone anywhere and had success, but those guys brought out even more from me," Wilkins said. "When one of them is having a great game, I'm more excited about them. I know them all, and what they've gone through, and how hard they've worked. It's crazy. The brotherhood is real."
Back to the magazine cover for a moment. The day it came out, a reporter asked Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables if he was frustrated he wasn't included in the photo.
Venables ignored the latter part of the question because he was already thinking about how much the publicity of his D-line had run amok.
"I'm not mad at them," Venables said, straight-faced. "But I'm not asking for a copy for them to sign."
The point Venables is trying to get across here is that 2018 is no victory parade for this group. Yes, they're good. They're really good. And sure, if the NFL had come back with the right grade for Wilkins or Ferrell or Bryant, they might not be here today. But that's all secondary. These guys are here to work, to get better, to win. That's what this is all about, and the magazines and media attention and historical perspective is window dressing.
"We coach them every bit as hard as anyone on this team," Venables said. "We don't cut them a break on nothing. And they like it like that. People think we said, 'Come back and have fun, and we'll just get you to the game on Saturdays.' It's not like that."
This is important for people to understand, Venables said. These guys, they're unique. They don't just like playing or winning. They love working. The grind, that's what it's all about. They show up early. They leave late. They drag more-listless teammates along and push them to do better.
"We try to be the hardest-working group on the field, in the weight room, in the classroom," Lawrence said. "We're very competitive people, and we don't want to be outworked doing anything."
Go into the weight room. The music will be blaring, usually chosen by Wilkins. And the group of defensive linemen will be in there, working out, with the only rule being, if one guy does it, everyone else should too.
Or check out the practice field, where Lawrence and Wilkins will sprint back from a drill, racing each other just to prove a point.
Or watch 11-on-11 drills. No one gets off easy. The offensive linemen are tweaked constantly. Wilkins chirps after every defensive snap in which the offense doesn't score. Go easy just because it's a random Tuesday in May? No way.
"They make it hard in practice," Kelly Bryant said. "They're competitive. They always bring it, every day. When we're doing good on good, that encourages us, because if you don't bring it, you'll get exposed."
But even that undersells the real accomplishment here. It's not just that this group is working harder than everyone else. It's not just that they ride the freshmen, chide the quarterbacks, torment the offensive line. It's that they've managed to have convinced every other player on the team that this is fun.
Just got leveled by Dexter Lawrence? That's fun.
Just got exposed by Clelin Ferrell attacking off the edge? Fun.
Just heard Christian Wilkins talk some smack that would make your mama cry? Laugh it up. This is the most fun you'll have all day.
"When they say we're hard on them," Ferrell said, "we can do that because they know we care about the person first."
This isn't a job, after all. Bryant and Ferrell and Wilkins turned down the job offer from the NFL. They came back for more fun.
"We enjoy the preparation more than the benefits," Wilkins said. "We love practice as much as we love game day. I feel like we set the tone for what type of day it is. I feel like when the defensive line is off just a little bit, it sets the standard for the whole defense. We just love the grind of it."
This is why the magazine covers bother Venables. He wants people to see these guys for who they are, vicious competitors and tireless workers and players who don't care where they cross the finish line because the fun is all in running the race.
The hype? It short-sells them. Of course they're special. Just make sure you know why.
"However good we say they are," Venables said, "they're better."