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4 reasons NFL fans should watch Clemson DT Christian Wilkins vs. Virginia Tech

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Christian Wilkins could be the first defensive player drafted in 2018.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

For the second time in three weeks, Clemson will be one half of the featured matchup on ESPN’s College GameDay and in the coveted 8 p.m. ET slot on ABC. Unlike two weeks ago when Louisville’s Lamar Jackson was the one under the microscope, Virginia Tech and Clemson have quarterbacks in their first seasons as starters.

But even if the game doesn’t have a Heisman Trophy contender, it carries national title-picture ramifications and may be a meeting of the two best ACC teams.

If No. 12 Virginia Tech hopes to pull off the upset against No. 2 Clemson, it’ll have to hold off the team’s dangerous defensive line. Most of all, the Hokies have to deal with the monster inside that is defensive tackle Christian Wilkins.

Through four games in 2017, Wilkins has three tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and 18 tackles. The 6’4, 300-pound junior was one of five finalists for the Nagurski Trophy in 2016 recognizing the nation’s most outstanding defensive player in college. Three of the other finalists — Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster and Jabrill Peppers — were first-round picks in April.

Wilkins is likely to follow in their footsteps. Here are four reasons Wilkins is a player that NFL fans should take a close look at Saturday night:

1. Wilkins could be the first defensive player off the board

In the first 2018 mock draft from SB Nation’s Dan Kadar, Wilkins landed at No. 6 behind three quarterbacks, safety Derwin James and cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick.

James and Fitzpatrick have appeared near the top of plenty of other 2018 mock drafts too, but defensive backs rarely go that early. The only time in the last 10 years that a defensive back was the first defensive player off the board was in 2012, when the first five picks were on the offensive side of the ball and No. 6 was cornerback Morris Claiborne.

It’s too early to tell what team needs will be by the time spring rolls around, but it’s always a safe bet that a bad roster could use a dynamic defensive tackle to build around.

2. Wilkins does things 300-pound players just don’t do

There are a lot of athletic defensive linemen in the NFL. But even the freakiest linemen don’t often do the splits like Wilkins.

And he’s not just flexible.

He has run for first downs.

ABC

He’s caught touchdown passes.

ACC Digital Network

And he’s blocked kicks.

ABC

He’s a one-man wrecking crew for Clemson and tuning in to watch means you might get to watch him do a little more than just line up at defensive tackle.

3. Virginia Tech provides a test

In the second season under Justin Fuente, the Virginia Tech offensive line has a solid mix of underclassmen and experience, and it’s working well for the team. West Virginia was the only real competition so far, but the Hokies have given up just four sacks in four games and that’s a good start, regardless.

Saturday will be the rematch of the 2016 ACC Championship that Clemson won 42-35. In that game, Wilkins was held to just one tackle. But the rest of the Tigers’ defense had four sacks and eight tackles for loss.

If Wilkins and the Clemson defensive line can have a similar performance, the team should be able to move to 5-0. But experienced starters for Virginia Tech, like Eric Gallo and Wyatt Teller, will try to hold up better than Auburn did against Clemson a few weeks ago.

4. Wilkins is explosive off the line of scrimmage

Versatility and athleticism is fun, but NFL teams won’t go after Wilkins unless they believe he can destroy pockets, stuff running backs and sack quarterbacks. So far, he’s shown plenty of signs that he can.

Wilkins’ 6’4 frame has allowed him to knock down passes for Clemson, but he also has the ability to get underneath opposing offensive linemen and use his quick hands to rip through their attempts to block him.

Quickness off the line of scrimmage is important for interior pass rushers and it may be the trait that makes Wilkins most intriguing as a draft prospect.

If he continues to get better at using leverage and adds more pass-rushing polish, Wilkins could be a top-five pick in April.