The fan-favorite defensive tackle’s announcement came just days after word that fellow starters Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant would also be returning to the Tigers in 2018. Joining the defensive lineman in their decision to return are linebacker Kendall Joseph, left tackle Mitch Hyatt, and cornerback Mark Fields. There’s no doubt these draft decisions provide a major boost to the Tigers 2018 aspirations.
The Tigers now return six of their front seven starters from a unit that ranked fourth nationally in total defense and second in scoring defense. Joining that unit will be highly coveted recruits KJ Henry and Xavier Thomas. Before these draft decisions were made, it appeared likely that Thomas and Henry would be starting as true freshman, but now Clemson has an opportunity to develop them slowly as rotational players at first before they take the starting job down the line. Clemson now possesses unrivaled talent and depth across the defensive line.
Mitch Hyatt’s return creates a similar situation for Clemson’s offensive line. Top ranked 2018 offensive line recruit Jackson Carman, who signed with the Tigers last month, has a chance to sit and learn behind Hyatt or perhaps start his college career at right tackle. Hyatt has been a steady force for the Tigers since he became a starter as a true freshman. His continued leadership will be important for an offensive line that was excellent in the regular season, but disappointed in the season finale against Alabama.
The decisions of Kendall Joseph and Mark Fields have gone underrated compared to those of Wilkins, Ferrell, and Bryant, but they’re important nonetheless. Joseph may not offer the same splash play potential of his teammates in the front seven. However, he’s a tackling machine who led Clemson in that category in 2017 and has the ability to play multiple linebacker positions all while acting as the quarterback of the defense. His importance to the defense cannot be overstated. Meanwhile, Fields returns starting experience to a defensive backfield that struggled with depth and inexperience last season.
Tiger fans are incredibly excited about the return of some of their best players in recent memory. However, it’s important to also acknowledge the potential downside of these decisions. These players are forgoing multi-million dollar salaries and risking career-threatening injury to come back and don the orange and purple for another season. It’s unclear where Hyatt, Joseph, and Fields would have been drafted, but Wilkins, Ferrell, and Bryant all had excellent chances to be first round selections. All these young men now have a chance to raise their draft stock further a la Vic Beasley a few seasons ago, but the chances of damaging their draft stock, and more importantly their health, do exist and cannot be overlooked.
What these players are doing for their team is incredibly special. In an age where the NFL Draft seems to have more early entrants every year, having so many players return who have already made major contributions on and off the field is rare. Together, these men are giving more to Clemson football and to the university at large than any players in recent memory, and perhaps school history.
Tiger fans owe Christian, Clelin, Austin, Kendall, Mitch, and Mark their thanks.