CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Clemson junior Christian Wilkins has proven he is comfortable playing different positions on the defensive front. Now the All-American is looking to play a different role for the Tigers.

Clemson returns plenty of talent from its 2016 defense that helped the Tigers win a national title. In spite of the returning players, the Clemson defense will be without several leaders from the unit that was one of the best in the country.

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Wilkins is taking it upon himself to fill the void left by the heart-and-soul of last year's defense, Ben Boulware, as well as seniors Carlos Watkins, Cordrea Tankersley and Jadar Johnson.

"More of the leadership focus is on me. Definitely as a leader, I'm trying to step up a lot more and just get comfortable with being uncomfortable," Wilkins said Thursday at the ACC Kickoff event. "Be that guy that's going to get on his teammates and hold them to the highest standard possible. I feel like I'm prepared for that because I had guys before me who have done that."

Wilkins said he is more than capable of being a leader. He hasn't been in the position to do so at Clemson.

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That changes now as he will be the face of a defensive unit that has high expectations under coordinator Brent Venables.

"It's easy to sit back and just watch someone else do that. But I'm going to have to be uncomfortable by doing that and allow myself to hold everybody to the highest standard. Even when I'm tired, to push through it and just be the example when times get tough," Wilkins said. "I've always been a guy who's tried to hold their teammates to the best standard. I've always been someone who's tried to work as hard as I could. It's just different because now I'll be more vocal about it. ... I just have to be the leader for the defense."

Wilkins has the respect of his teammates and coaches after what he accomplished in his first two seasons at Clemson.

He was an All-American at defensive tackle as a freshman after posting 84 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss. He followed thatby being an All-American at defensive end last season, recording 56 tackles and 13 tackles for loss.

"He's made All-American at D-tackle and D-end. That's easier said than done," Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. "That's like making All-American at tight end and wide receiver, literally. That would be the way I'd compare that. That's a lot of versatility. He's a matchup problem and gives us flexibility."

Wilkins is planning to move back inside for his junior season, which could be his final one at Clemson.

The Massachusetts native is projected to be a first-round pick in next year's NFL draft and is finishing his degree in December.

"The way I look at it is I wanted to get my degree in two and a half years coming in because my education is paid for. It's free. I wanted to set myself up with a lot of options," Wilkins said. "I did this before I knew how good I was going to be, if I was going to be potentially ready for the NFL or whatever. I was preparing myself for whatever comes next.

"After I get this degree, if I decide to stay, I have plans to get my master's so I can work on that. It's not just a plan just to take the next step."

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Wilkins is putting off any NFL decision and is focusing on trying to help the Tigers repeat as national champions.

"I'm not focusing on that right now. I'm just focusing really on the season," he said. "I want to have a lot of options that way if I do decide (to leave) I'll have a degree." 

This article is written by Matt Connolly from The State and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.