Clelin Ferrell Wants To Be This Generation’s Dwight Freeney

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Clelin Ferrell’s story has been told so many times, the important parts start to feel like bullet points on a resume. Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. Parents met in the military. One of nine children. Lost his father to cancer in high school. Spurned the NFL Draft to come back to Clemson for one more year and win another national championship.

As Ferrell has gone through the ringer that is the NFL Draft process, he’s been poked and prodded by countless media outlets and NFL teams alike that his tale has started to feel like a script for a television show pilot.

“Trust me, you find out a lot about yourself,” Ferrell said. “It’s funny, everyone wants to know who you are as a person. So through that, you really have time to think, like, ‘Oh, OK, I really am this type of person!’ When you’re playing football in college, you have no time to just self-reflect on things. But now, I’ve had more time to really self-reflect.”

As a member of a stacked defensive line from Clemson that featured names like Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins, Ferrell probably places third in that group in terms of name recognition. But the three-year starter for the Tigers has methodically climbed up draft boards after racking up 11.5 sacks in 2018, to the point where he’s widely expected to be taken in middle of the first round or higher on Thursday night in Nashville.

As he waits to find out where he’ll begin his professional career, Ferrell spoke with UPROXX on behalf of Hyundai about what these past few months have been like, how he turned himself into an elite pass rusher and his plans for Trevor Lawrence once the Clemson phenom reaches the NFL.

What’s going through the process of preparing for the NFL Draft been like for you?

It’s been really, really good. Obviously there’s been struggles, just because it’s a different thing where I’m doing more stuff on my own now. Now the media doesn’t go through Clemson compliance to get in contact with me, they just go through me. I’m having to be mindful of my time. It’s something that I’ve been prepared for. But it’s been really good man, I’ve been excited to meet all the new coaches and NFL legends that I’ve met through this process. I’m just blessed to be in this position. I’m so anxious to figure out where I’m going and start my new journey.

Has it felt like the actual draft has taken forever to arrive?

Hell yes! Way too long.

You mentioned getting to meet some NFL legends. Who’s the coolest person you’ve run in to?

Growing up I was a (Baltimore) Ravens fan. I remember hearing so much about Ozzie Newsome and all the players that he drafted. Obviously the players he drafted were my favorite players, so when I met him at the Combine, I was kind of starstruck. Like, ‘that’s Ozzie Newsome, he drafted Jonathan Ogdon and Ray Lewis and all those guys.’ I was like, ‘whoa.’ So that was really really cool to meet him.

It feels like you added something to your game every year you were at Clemson. What year was the biggest for your development?

After my redshirt sophomore year, the year we lost to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. I was blessed enough to really have an opportunity to declare for the draft then, but I decided not to. And when I decided not to, I started to think, what things do I really need to get better at to really take my game to another level? Really perfecting my strength at the point of attack as far as the run game. I feel like I’ve gotten better at that every single year. Really learning the defense. My entire time playing I had known what I was doing, but just how easy it came, and how knowledgeable I became about the game, that really took my game to another level. Because then I knew when and where I could take chances. I feel that really served me a lot, and I had my best year production-wise.

You also boast pretty incredible first-step speed off the line. Where did that come from?

To be honest, I would say 70 percent is natural ability. But that 30 percent is what really gives you a chance to get off the ball. And that’s from a guy’s anticipation. You can’t coach that. It takes training and really dialing in and focusing on it. Really just zoning in and having that good peripheral vision as to when you think the ball is going to be snapped. Knowing what things to look at, whether you’re looking at the ball, looking at the center’s elbow, looking at the tackle’s knee. Different thing like that, knowing the cadences. The anticipation is so huge. That’s something I’ve always tried to focus on. Especially at this level, I’m really going to have to key in on that because tackles will really get after you. I feel like it’s something that’s going to serve me well in the league.

Are there guys from the NFL that you’ve modeled your game after?

I consider myself something of a historian. As far as my position, there’s so many guys that I’ve watched that I give credit to, as far as pieces of my game that I’ve taken from them. I’ve always liked Junior Galette and Aldon Smith. Growing up, you watch guys like Dwight Freeney. Dwight Freeney might be the best edge rusher from my era, to be honest with you. From the early 2000s up until 2010, I don’t know if there’s a guy better than Dwight Freeney. Everybody knows the spin move, but just watching his speed to power, how quick he was off the ball with his edge rushing, that’s what set up the spin move. I watched him a lot. I watched Jason Taylor. So many different guys for sure.

Are you a guy that pays attention to mock drafts, and where the talking heads have you ending up?

I don’t really pay attention to it. You can’t let someone else’s opinion be the thing that gives you satisfaction. And I hate to say this, but every guy you see doing the mock drafts, whether it’s a big guy like Mel Kiper or Todd McShay, or whether it’s a small time guy who’s in his living room doing a mock draft: yes they might get it right sometimes. But they’re not the guy in the war room with teams. They’re not the guy who knows what teams are going to do. It’s just their honest opinion. They’re really just guessing.

I don’t think nobody thought Baker Mayfield was going no. 1 in the draft last year. Everybody had (Sam) Darnold or Josh Allen or Josh Rosen going no. 1. People thought Mayfield was going to be a late first or second round guy. I don��t really get my satisfaction from those things, man. I feel I know where I should go, just based on my talent and my resume, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. That’s not what I want out of this. I just want to have the opportunity. After the draft is over, we all go back to being no-name rookies. Vets don’t care who we are or where we got drafted. We’re just trying to make the team at that point.

Your quarterback last season at Clemson, Trevor Lawrence, is already being talked about as one of the best QB prospects to come along in a very long time. How good can he be?

I don’t know if I want to speak on it, but I will say this: Trevor is a special player and a special person. People say he earned the praise, which yes, he earned the praise. But that praise can be a whole lot of pressure. It’s so crazy, and it’s not fair to him. Look at how people was talking about Tua (Tagovailoa) before the national championship game. Tua was the greatest thing since white on rice. Tua was the greatest thing before the Hesiman Trophy was awarded to Kyler (Murray). People loved Tua. And Tua was still a really good player. But people are on your wave, then they’re on it, but if they’re not, they’re not. But Trevor can do anything he sets his mind to. I think he’s going to have a a great story to tell once he’s done playing football. Hopefully that’s 10-15 years from now. But he’s going to have a great career doing whatever, because of who he is. I’m so proud of him.

And if he gets to the league, you’re going to want to sack him, I imagine.

I already told him, you just keep working hard, you’re going to get to the league, and hopefully I’m still in the league when he gets there (laughs). But trust me, if I get the opportunity, I’m going to have to take one for the team and get that flag because I’m going to try and bury him. I’m going to try and pull his hair out and everything.

You’re part of a series called “Rolling With The Rookies” that Hyundai is doing. What was that experience like?

It was like me being a chauffeur to giving them a whole, in-depth look at my whole entire life. I really had to sit back and reflect and tell them who I was as a person. Not just the players. They wanted to know everything. It was a once in a lifetime thing.