Austin Bryant sensed early on that he was a part of something very special at Clemson.
“When we first got here in June (of 2015),” Bryant, a former Thomas County Central standout, reflected on Thursday after Clemson’s Pro Day in advance of the NFL draft. “It was like midnight, we broke into Death Valley (the stadium) and had our playbooks that the coaches had just gave us and we were running through plays and conditioning, and it was midnight.”
That’s when Bryant said he knew what could be in store for this class. To him, that adolescent behavior meant they were driven with purpose and goals that wanted to achieve.
“That’s when I knew we had a chance to do something special,” Bryant said.
Now, after two national championships, Bryant and three of his defensive line mates are all primed to be selected in the NFL draft, set for April 25-27 in Nashville.
The group has built on the tradition of Clemson churning out defensive linemen going back to the days of William “The Refrigerator” Perry right up through Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and defensive end Vic Beasley. The current group includes Bryant, Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins took college football by storm.
“We were just building off of that tradition,” said Lawrence, who interviewed with the Falcons at the scouting combine. “They set a high standard, even before (Jarrett and Bealsey), there was Ricky Sapp and Da’Quan Bowers and all of the great defensive linemen. It was just something that you thought about when you came here.”
The history was motivational.
“They were great,” Lawrence said. “What did they do to be great? Let’s mimic that, but try to be better than that at the same time.”
Bryant, Ferrell and Wilkins all considered leaving early for the NFL after the 2017 season when the Tigers lost in the national semifinals to Alabama.
The three came back for a chance to win a title and were a key force to help Clemson become major college football’s first 15-0 champion.
The defensive linemen, nicknamed the Power Rangers after the popular children’s superheroes, wore headbands to their final workout before more than 100 NFL executives, coaches and scouts.
“I thought it was neat they came out with their Power Ranger colors one last time,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “They say, they’ll ride together and die together.”
Bryant (pectoral muscle surgery) and Ferrell (turf toe) were unable to work out for scouts.
“We are riding out on our high horses,” said Bryant, who also interviewed with the Falcons at the scouting combine. “This is like our last hurrah. We found these headbands and said we’ll rock them at Pro Day.”
Ferrell had a friend make the headbands for the players.
“It was our last time back into action,” Wilkins said. “The last time we got to morph together as a unit. We had to go out with a bang.”
Wilkins knows the future will be different as the Power Rangers head off into the NFL work place.
“It’s just funny because stuff like that hasn’t fully hit you,” Wilkins said. “We all have to go down our own paths now.”
Swinney is going to miss his Power Rangers.
“I got a chance to meet with them this morning as a group,” Swinney said. “Probably the next time that I’ll get to see the group together will be at a reunion down the road. It was pretty neat to see them work a grind it one more time.”
While the Power Rangers bit is cute, the bond the players developed appears to be very real.
“Before we stepped on the field, we were close off the field,” Ferrell said. “It’s a blessing that we generated a love that really if we didn’t play football, really we’d be the best of friends regardless.
“That’s what really helped us. When you carry that onto the field, there is no jealousy. There is no envy. There is no snaking people out. You want for him, what you want for yourself.”
It wasn’t all good times, fun and games.
“We are like real-life brothers,” Ferrell said. “We fight. We cheer. We argue. But we love each other up at the end of the day.”
They’ve had their up and downs. Gone days without speaking before making up.
“They used to keep the lights on and it was like you were in there for a game,” Ferrell said of breaking into the stadium. “We used to break in there and walk through plays. You can yell and scream and it would echo.”
There was other mayhem that Ferrell described. Something about riding bikes and running through in a monsoon.
But now it’s time to put all of the pranks behind. The Power Rangers must remove their head bands and go to work.
They’ll be playing on Sundays.
“Ferrell, to me, he sets the edge,” NFL network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “Tremendous effort. Leadership all of that stuff is tremendous. He’s a safe player. Maybe not the highest ceiling, but a high floor.”
He’s projected to go first among the teammates, possibly in the top 10.
Wilkins may go next.
Lawrence, who is 6-foot-4 and 342 pounds, was suspended for the playoffs after testing positive for the banned substance Ostarine.
“Then Dexter Lawrence, if it was 10 years ago, we’d all say he was for sure the best of the bunch,” Jeremiah said. “He’s going to dominate against the run.”
Wilkins is a dynamic penetrator, but sometimes gets stuffed against the run.
“Austin Bryant is a second- or third-round pick,” Jeremiah said. “Just a real solid all-around player.”
Bryant is hoping to improve his draft stock with a mock pro day if he’s gets cleared by his doctors.
“I’m not that worried, but I am going to miss seeing them every single day,” Bryant said.
Lawrence has been busy discussing the suspension with NFL teams, defending himself against any real or perceived character flaws.
“They talk about it and I just tell them the truth,” Lawrence said. “That’s all that I can do and go on about my business pretty much.”
It’s been a bumpy road for Lawrence.
“I know I have to address it,” he said. “Can’t hide from it. It’s something that I have to deal with right now. I don’t like talking about it because it’s dumb and I didn’t do anything. It’s just, whatever.”
Swinney acknowledged that the suspension could have been unknowingly caused by the team’s staff.
“It’s very frustrating for me because something chemically in my body could have happened that I don’t know of,” Lawrence said. “It’s just kind of annoying. I’m getting tired of it really. It’s just stupid.”
Wilkins wants to be drafted ahead of Ferrell.
“Just for the life of me, I just hope that Cle does not get drafted before me,” Wilkins said. “I will be the most upset human being in the world.”
Ferrell’s looking forward to the first reunion after the Power Rangers went out with two national championships over the past three seasons.
“When you talk about football, people really want to be at the top,” Ferrell said. “A lot of times, people will push others down to get to the top. But with us, it’s just really about bringing each other up.”
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