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Clemson Virginia Tech Football

Defensive lineman Christian Wilkins warms up prior to the start of the Clemson-Virginia Tech  game in Blacksburg, Va., on Sept. 30, 2017.

AP

CLEMSON — For hundreds if not thousands of little kids, when Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins announced he was returning to the Tigers for another season -- along with teammates Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell — their excitement level went through the roof.

Thoughts of another ACC championship, trip to the College Football Playoff and, dare we say, another national title began to dance in their heads.

But one thing they did not expect was to walk into their classrooms and see the all-American standing in front of their class introducing himself as “Mr. Wilkins.” But that is exactly what is happening in local schools in the Upstate as the future first-round draft pick is doing a little substitute teaching in his down time.

“It’s challenging. It’s more challenging than anything I’ve ever done on the field,” Wilkins said. “Obviously, it’s been a good experience. The kids are great. I’ve been teaching high school so far. It’s just a mix. I’ve got a lot of free time on my hands now that I’m in (graduate) school. So I’ve got to do something with my free time.

“I’m a strict teacher. We’ve got to get down to business. We don’t have time for games. We got to get to work. I’ve got to educate the youth.”

That Wilkins is taking his free time to get out and be around the kids who fill the stands on Saturdays does not surprise Coach Dabo Swinney.

In reality, for a player that has played offense and defense, scored a touchdown, blocked a field goal and caught two passes, nothing that Wilkins does will surprise Swinney.

“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,” Swinney said.

However, what Swinney likes more than the “70 or 80 bucks” that Wilkins can earn each day he is in the classroom is the teaching that he does on the field with the Clemson team’s bevy of very talented but extremely young defensive linemen.

“Christian loves teaching. He loves to teach,” Swinney said. “He loves to take those young guys under his wing and challenging them. He stays with them after practice. We’ve got a good group.”

The decision to return to school and passing on the potential millions of dollars in the NFL to play college football another season and earn a few dollars a day as a substitute teacher may seem strange to most people.

However, for Wilkins the decision on whether to return to school or head to the NFL was never about money — it was about his legacy.

“I’m just excited to come back for my fourth and final year,” Wilkins said. “Just to completely finish the book, end this chapter in my life. I’m happy. We all had our own decisions to make … it’s fun that we all decided to do the same thing. I’m looking forward to what is to come this year and finishing it out right.

“Going to give it one last shot, one more ride and see where I am at the end of the year.”

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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