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Clemson's Christian Wilkins celebrates after stopping Auburn on a second-down play during second-quarter action in Clemson on Sept. 9.

Travis Bell/SIDELINE CAROLINA

CLEMSON — Saturday the second-ranked Clemson Tigers will not only celebrate Military Appreciation Day, they will also mark Senior Day.

The class that will be recognized prior to the Tigers taking on The Citadel Bulldogs in the home finale includes Dorian O’Daniel, Marcus Edmond, Christian Grooms, Connor Sekas, Tyrone Crowder, Kelby Bevelle, Kaleb Bevelle, Maverick Morris, D.J. Greenlee, Ryan Carter, Drew Costa and Jack Swinney.

Joining the group of seniors being recognized are juniors Taylor Hearn and Christian Wilkins, as both -- while not having made a decision regarding returning for their senior season — will graduate from Clemson on Dec. 21.

While Hearn’s future appears to be in limbo, Wilkins projects to be a first-round selection in the 2018 NFL Draft — making his return to the Tigers after this season unlikely. That leads the coaching staff to reminisce about what it was like getting the No. 4-ranked defensive tackle from Suffield Academy (Conn.) to choose the Tigers.

“At first, I had never heard of Suffield Academy before,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “So we saw his video - -his video was very good -- obviously we had reached out and had talked with him the first time in August, we're in fall camp. He was sleeping midmorning. We caught him on the wrong day because he's an early-bird kind of guy, and we were speaking to him and he says that they were not in practice and they're not in school for another month or so.

“My first intuition was something’s fishy here, this isn't a real school and this will be a train wreck if we end up trying to recruit this guy and he's got some illegal transcripts or something like that … Nothing seemed to add up.”

Luckily for the Tigers, the coaching staff continued to dive into the young man from up north.

Wilkins took an unofficial visit to Clemson in the spring of his junior year and loved what Clemson had to offer — even though the coaches were surprised, as the usually outspoken Wilkins remained subdued for much of the visit.

That interest by Wilkins prompted Venables and former defensive tackles coach Dan Brooks to make the trip to Connecticut in hopes of learning more about Wilkins.

What they found out was almost too good to be true.

"We went to go see him in the spring, everybody at the school, kind of like a small university how it's set up, went above and beyond in saying great things about Christian as a young man,” Venables said. “They all had their stories about how he had impacted their lives in some way or just wanted to share something about him. Whether it's the basketball coach, the track coach, the dean of students, the football coach, the secretaries, the people in the cafeteria -- everyone had great things to say about him.

“Then he started opening up and just being who he is - -the life of the party. He's got a ton of personality -- upbeat, positive, well-spoken, sharp, articulate, he's got a lot to him. Very confident, but yet tremendous humility and I said this guy's too good to be true.”

With the Tigers on the verge of having a breakout season in 2015 -- following a 10-3 2014 season, which saw the Tigers dismantle the Oklahoma Sooners in the Russell Athletic Bowl by a score of 40-6 -- Venables understood how landing a player like Wilkins could help the Tigers over the hump of competing for a national title.

With offers from Penn State, Ohio State, Boston College and every other major college power being thrown at Wilkins, Venables saw the potential to lose the five-star recruit to a school closer to home.

"I thought this guy has the unique ability to make everyone around him better and would instantly improve our locker room. So, I immediately said, 'Well, we're not going to get him,’” Venables said. “Because he comes from a huge family and so many people up there were Christian Wilkins fans and I thought, the type of young man that he is, he would want to stay close and share that experience with them. So I really felt like it would be an upper-Northeast type of battle."

But it was not an “upper-Northeast” school that won Wilkins over — it was the Clemson Tigers.

Ever since his arrival on campus in the summer of 2015, Wilkins has shown the type of player, and person, that he is.

“I always tell people, he's either going to be the president of the United States or he's going to know him - -one of the two. There won't be any in-between when it comes to Christian. He's going to do unbelievable things in life,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “He's an unbelievable competitor. He has got the eye of the tiger and when it comes time to compete, he's locked in. Whether it's watching tape, whether it's in these meetings, he's very focused and I guess that is something that's just how he's been his whole life - -that's just what he does.”

Whether Wilkins returns for his senior season, or if this Saturday’s game is his final one in Death Valley, one thing is a given: The team that has his services next season is getting a winner.

“He's come to Clemson, he's been here for three years and he's been in going on three ACC Championship appearances, been in two national championship games, played against elite talent and he's been very productive,” Swinney said. "There's a lot to like about Christian."

Zach Lentz is a Clemson University alumnus who got his start working with the Tigers basketball team from 1999-2004. Now a resident of Orangeburg County, he reports on Clemson sports as a correspondent for The Times and Democrat.

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