A Clemson thank-you to the orange-clad Power Ranger

Kelly Gramlich
Special to Orange and White

On Thursday, Aug. 29, Clemson will kick off its 2019 football season in Death Valley vs. Georgia Tech.

In many ways, the inaugural game of the 2019 season will feel like any other Clemson home opener. Fans will drive into Clemson with their Tiger tails hanging off the back of their cars and stickers that read “On our way to see the Tigers play.” Tailgaters will be up early, firing up their grills and preparing for a full day of celebrating the return of football season. Old friends will reunite, families will break bread and of course, fans will flock into Death Valley to watch the defending national champions play football.

However, there is one thing that won’t be the same.

For the first time in four years, Christian Wilkins will not run down The Hill and take the field for the Tigers in front of the home crowd in Death Valley. The jovial, big guy from Massachusetts who dominated opposing quarterbacks for four short seasons at Clemson, will have moved on.  

To the casual college football fan, Christian Wilkins’ story seems pretty typical. He was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and the sixth-best defensive tackle in the country, according to 247Sports. Wilkins chose Clemson over Ohio State, Penn State and Stanford, among others.

Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins (42) and defensive lineman Clelin Ferrell (99) celebrate a 44-16 win over Alabama after the College Football Championship game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California Monday, January 7, 2019.

MORE:Christian Wilkins' four years at Clemson filled with victories...and plenty of fun

As many five-star recruits do, Wilkins made an impact on the field in just his first season as a Tiger in 2015, earning first-team freshman All-American honors and even catching a pass on a fake field-goal play in Clemson’s win against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Wilkins would go on to dominate the competition in his sophomore and junior seasons, playing both defensive end and defensive tackle, earning numerous All-American honors and helping Clemson win a national championship in 2016.

Last January, as his junior season came to a close, Wilkins became eligible for the NFL draft and was seen by many as a potential high draft pick following a year in which he compiled 53 tackles, 8.5 tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sacks and 11 quarterback pressures. Wilkins had already accomplished so much at Clemson in just three seasons, earning pretty much every individual honor possible as well as helping Clemson win three ACC titles and of course, a national title.

However, this is where Wilkins' story changed from predictable to unique. Following the 2017 season and a Clemson loss in the College Football Playoffs semifinal, Wilkins shocked everybody by announcing that he would return to Clemson for his senior season in hopes of winning another national championship.

MORE:Alabama vs. Clemson: Who is defensive tackle Christian Wilkins?

After three outstanding seasons at Clemson, there’s no doubt Wilkins was a fan favorite. However, after returning for his senior year, leading Clemson to another national title and of course, ugly crying on national television following the victory, Wilkins cemented himself as one of the most beloved players in the history of the program.

Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins (42) reacts after sacking South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley (19) during the 3rd quarter Saturday, November 14, 2018 at Clemson's Memorial Stadium.

Wilkins came to Clemson as an outsider in many respects – a Yankee from New England, heading south to play football in a completely new environment. As he sacked quarterbacks, celebrated with his Power Ranger hand signals, did the splits and threw out doughnuts to fans, he endeared himself to the fan base.

After four years at Clemson, Wilkins leaves the school as a two-time national champion, four-time ACC champion, four-time state champion, four-time All-American and the winner of the prestigious William V. Campbell Trophy, deemed by many as the academic Heisman.

However, he also leaves Clemson with something much less tangible, something that can’t be placed in a trophy case or on a mantle – the love, admiration and gratitude of an entire fan base.

It is safe to say there will never be another Christian Wilkins at Clemson. He was and still is one of a kind.

Kelly Gramlich can be heard 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Out of Bounds” with William Qualkinbush on WCCP 105.5 The Roar. Find her on Twitter (@kellygramlich).

Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins stops to hug a young fan during Tiger Walk before the game in Memorial Stadium on Saturday, October 20, 2018.