Back Clemson Could Make a Statement Without Dexter Lawrence

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Clemson Could Make a Statement Without Dexter Lawrence

By Dave Holcomb
SouthernPigskin.com
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Clemson would rather be at full strength, but the Tigers have enough defensive line depth to overcome the loss, and if they can, it would further accentuate how dominant the Clemson football program has become.

The top two College Football Playoff seeds answered their biggest question marks in resounding fashion during the national semifinals on Saturday. Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa didn’t show any ill effects from the surgery he had in early December, and Clemson’s defense dominated without star defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence.

It sets up yet another Alabama-Clemson playoff match -- the fourth one in the last four years and the third meeting for the national championship. But if the Tigers are going to “slay the dragon” and beat Alabama again for the title, they are likely going to have to do it without Lawrence, who faces a year-long ban.

Clemson would rather be at full strength, but the Tigers have enough defensive line depth to overcome the loss, and if they can, it would further accentuate how dominant the Clemson football program has become.

The NCAA disqualified Lawrence, and two other Clemson players, offensive lineman Zach Giella and tight end Braden Galloway, for failing drug tests on Dec. 20. According to the Greenville News, each of their tests showcased traces of ostarine, which is an illegal drug used to help create lean muscle.

Each player is appealing the year-long suspension, but it’s a long shot to get the decision overturned. Plus, more likely than not, the appeal process will take longer than the time before Clemson plays Alabama on Jan. 7.

“Obviously, we don’t have a lot of time for this game,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “I’m hopeful that maybe something positive will come out, but I don’t know anything at all.”

What Swinney can admit he knows is his defensive line depth. Without Lawrence, Albert Huggins, who would be a starter on a lot of other teams, played a lot, along with other backups Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams. They combined for just 2.0 tackles, but they did enough to allow the rest of the Clemson defensive front to cause havoc in the Notre Dame backfield.

The Tigers held the Fighting Irish to 88 rushing yards, which was Notre Dame’s second-lowest total of the season. Clemson also sacked Irish quarterback Ian Book six times, practically rendering Lawrence’s absence as a non-factor.

Doing that against Alabama’s offensive line, though, will be an even greater challenge. For one reason, the Crimson Tide can game plan against a Lawrence-less Clemson defensive line ahead of time.

Notre Dame game planned and practiced for nearly three weeks with the assumption Lawrence was going to play. Then the Fighting Irish had to adjust their plan, sliding their protection away from Lawrence’s spot to the other defensive lineman stars such as Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant.

The Notre Dame on-the-fly plan didn’t work, but Alabama will game plan from the start with the assumption Lawrence will not play. That’s one advantage the Crimson Tide could hold that the Irish didn’t.

Of course, there’s two obvious counterarguments to that statement. For one, Notre Dame still had more than a week to adjust its game plan. More than likely, it was the Tigers defensive line overwhelming the Irish front and not their preparations that hurt Notre Dame.

Secondly, Alabama still has to be ready in case of the unlikely scenario Lawrence does play. Cramming a plan in for him late in the week would be worse than Notre Dame having to adjust to facing the Tigers defense without him.

Even the perfect plan may not be able to slow down the Clemson front. After their performance against Notre Dame, the Tigers moved into first in the country with 52 sacks, averaging 3.71 sacks per game, this season. Clemson is also second in the nation with 9.21 tackles for loss per contest.

The aforementioned Ferrell, Bryant and Wilkins finished first, second and third, respectively, on the team with a combined 25.0 sacks. Ferrell led the way with 11.5 sacks while Lawrence only had 1.5.

The tackles for loss category looks similar. Ferrell is first on the team with 18.0 tackles for loss. Wilkins and Bryant sit at second and third, respectively, with 14.0 and 13.5 tackles for loss each. Lawrence is sixth on the team with 7.5.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean Lawrence had the weakest season of the four star defensive linemen. He takes on a lot of blockers, which allows his teammates to make plays. Lawrence has posted 10.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss in his college career, and he’s expected to be a first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Still, Clemson seems to have enough defensive line firepower even without Lawrence to make life difficult on Tagovailoa. The Georgia defense did that in the SEC Championship, and the Bulldogs struggled to put pressure on the quarterback at times this season, ending the year with just 24.0 sacks.

If the Tigers can beat Alabama without one of their best defensive players, which looks completely possible, Clemson would only further cement the fact its football program is as deep and talent as anybody in the country.