Sometimes the eyeball test is all you really need.
Connor Strachan was just a freshman at Boston College when the Eagles were trying to woo Christian Wilkins, Clemson’s ultra-hybrid defensive tackle, to the Heights.
Beyond the fact that Wilkins was one of the nation’s top-rated players (not to mention No. 1 at his position) coming out of Suffield Academy in Connecticut, it made immediate sense to Strachan why the Eagles coveted him so much when they met on Wilkins’s official visit to BC.
The intangibles that might make him a good teammate jumped out immediately.
“He was a nice kid,” Strachan said. “Respectful. Good down-to-earth kid.”
But what was impossible to ignore about Wilkins was his mountainous 6-foot-4-inch, 315-pound frame.
It was like staring up at a hulking comic book hero.
Strachan summed it up in one word: “Massive.”
“Massive in high school,” Strachan said. “Even at that age, I was sitting next to him — I think we were at a hockey game or something — and his legs were taking up three seats.
“So you definitely knew there was something there. There was a reason he was being recruited so well.”
Growing up in Springfield, Wilkins was a diehard BC football fan. He saw the Eagles at the height of the Matt Ryan era. He had close ties to late Eagles defensive tackle Ron Brace, who was also a Springfield native. He looked up to some of the faces of that defense, from defensive tackle B.J. Raji to defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka to linebacker Mark Herzlich.
“A lot of those guys were my heroes growing up,” Wilkins said. “That was my dream school when I was a kid. It was such a big deal. If you’re from Massachusetts, New England, you know what it means to be able to go to Boston College. That was me.”
The dream was always BC. But when Wilkins began considering his future and the places football could ultimately take him, the machine that is Clemson caught his gaze.
“I got older, things changed,” Wilkins said. “Just thought differently about recruiting. I grew as a man and knew what I wanted in a school and Clemson was the best option for me.”
Even as the Eagles have to game-plan for Wilkins’s menacing presence as second-ranked Clemson comes to the Heights Saturday night, no one can argue he didn’t make the right choice.
“I remember Christian very well,” said BC coach Steve Addazio. “First of all, he was a great player, but he had just such a great personality and a great presence about him, a wonderful, wonderful guy. Extremely talented. Obviously, Clemson got themselves an elite player who is a tremendous role model for the university.”
In four years, Wilkins has become one of the most frighteningly versatile defensive tackles in the country. The opportunity to go to the NFL was in front of him after last season, when he racked up 53 tackles (8½ for losses) and 4½ sacks. He was projected as a first-round pick but instead put the pros on hold.
He had broader ambitions. He graduated with a degree in communications in just 2½ years, the first scholarship player to do so at Clemson. He spent the offseason substitute teaching at an elementary school not far from Clemson’s campus.
He returned knowing he could improve his draft prospects, but also for the chance to help Clemson clinch its fourth straight Atlantic Coast Conference title, something no team has done since Florida State’s run of nine from 1992 to 2000.
“My word for this year is ‘legacy,’ ” Wilkins said. “Not only leave a legacy but live a legacy.”
Now, the program he worshiped as a kid is one of the last hurdles in Clemson’s way.
The Tigers (9-0 overall, 6-0 ACC) have run roughshod over conference opponents. But the 17th-ranked Eagles (7-2, 4-1), who climbed seven spots in the Associated Press Top 25 after last Saturday’s 31-21 victory at Virginia Tech, have a buzz around them that they haven’t seen since the days when Wilkins was watching Ryan.
Having ESPN’s “College GameDay” on hand for the 8 p.m. matchup adds extra juice.
But the opportunity to ostensibly play a homecoming game already heightened things for Wilkins.
“It’s definitely going to be special,” Wilkins said. “Opportunities like this don’t come around very often. Just for me to be a part of something special is going to be great. Just a little bit more of an incentive to do our job this week and to defend our division title, basically.”
In no way is Wilkins feeling conflicted.
“As a young guy, you’re a fan, then being recruited, you’ve got to make some decisions that are best for you as a man,” he said. “Now playing against them, I’m not a fan at all. I want to crush them.
“After the game, I’ll look up and enjoy being in the stadium and stuff like that, but I’ll reminisce more when the game is over.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.