PHOENIX — On the last day of September, Dabo Swinney left the commotion of Clemson's Family Night dinner festivities and led a visitor to his office. It was well after dark and well after his players had put in the required work for the day. Along the way, the Tigers head coach stopped when he saw that defensive backs coach Mike Reed's office had an occupant, who was concentrating on a computer screen. Swinney poked his head in. He offered to fetch some pajamas, if this was going to be an all-nighter. Mackensie Alexander looked over his shoulder and smiled, then returned to his film review without saying a word.
It was a weekday, after all. In the estimation of Clemson's exceptionally talented and ostentatiously confident redshirt sophomore cornerback, weekdays are not for talking. Not primarily, anyway. His time is better spent examining the best receiver on the other team, inspecting every route and body twitch for every strength and weakness he can find. Armed with this information, Alexander builds his plan to turn this receiver's night into a void. And then, when the other team basically gives up on trying to fit the ball where there is no space for a ball to fit, the Tigers' star might talk about that. Or he'll just tell the receiver that he loves him.
"I put a lot of time into this," Alexander said Saturday at the College Football Playoff national championship game media day. "I love the cornerback position. There's nobody who's dedicated to this position like I am, who's designed to win. I'm like a robot. I apply myself that way."
Because of this meticulous preparation, and because of Alexander's ability to implement it in an incredibly frustrating manner, the national title tilt against Alabama on Monday should feature the same intriguing game within the game common to every Clemson football outing: Keep away.
The Tigers are happy to direct Alexander to the opposition's best receiving threat and leave him alone to do his work. In response, the opposing team is generally predisposed to move that threat around as much as possible, to make it more difficult for the 5' 11", 195-pound Alexander to get anywhere near him. As it was with Notre Dame's Will Fuller on Oct. 3 and Oklahoma's Sterling Shepard on Dec. 31, so it could be with Alabama's Calvin Ridley, the 6' 1", 188-pound true freshman dynamo who can shave the top off a defense (he has 83 catches for 1,031 yards with seven touchdowns to date)—if he can find an opening to do so.
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It is cat-and-mouse scheming, though Clemson feels the cat part is fairly simple. "We go in there and we're like, 'This is the top receiver, Mackensie. Wherever he goes, you go,'" junior safety Jayron Kearse said. "'When you see him on the field, go cover him.' It's not really too much of a challenge. He's done a great job all season of eliminating the best receiver on the field. I don't see anything changing with that."
The Tigers have to hope nothing changes, because they must commit enough resources to limiting Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Derrick Henry first, which would inevitably require defensive backs to do some work on their own. Up until now, Alexander's solo act is thriving. In two seasons teams have targeted Alexander's assigned receiver 104 times. They have completed just 32 of those attempts. In 2015, opponents threw at Alexander's man just 47 times; only 12 passes were completed, none of which went for a touchdown.
Alexander's best performance was one of his most meaningful, coming just three days after Swinney spotted him reviewing video after hours and asked if he needed extra sleepwear: Alexander held Fuller to a season-low two catches in the Tigers' 24–22 win over Notre Dame, a victory that confirmed Clemson's place as a contender. "Having a guy that can do that and wants to do it, that's excited to do it, that's banging your door down to do it—he's got all those things from an intangible standpoint," Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "'Hey, I want their best guy. Give him to me.' That's fun to have a guy like that."
It's instructive to hear Alexander detail his life on an island: He played some running back in Pop Warner, but very early on he switched to cornerback. He says he has not played another position since. His size, speed, self-assurance and instincts just about predetermined his football fortunes.
"He came out of mama's womb that way," Venables said. "Mackensie, he came out, and he was a corner."
Alexander watched clips of cornerbacks from Deion Sanders to Darrelle Revis as part of honing his craft, but nothing compares to his study habits at Clemson. "Five minutes after a game," Reed said, "and he's in my office watching the film." If that's an exaggeration, it might not be by much: Alexander is convinced that spending the extended hours staring at video screens unlocks his natural physical talent, as opposed to merely complementing it.
He has adopted one of Reed's well-worn adages: If you're thinking, you're stinking. Alexander doesn't want to have to consider the action. He wants to see what's coming and play free. "A lot of people just look at my ability, but they don't look at the part where I'm in the film room, breaking stuff down," Alexander said. "I know what's going on, the ins and outs of the game, what they like to do, what am I going to do against them. You have to understand football to do what you do."
Alexander does what every great cornerback can do: Dictate from a position that is normally reactive.
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If he was an offensive coordinator, Alexander said Saturday, he would move his talented receiver away from a top cover cornerback, too. Even if it makes his life slightly more difficult, he views it as a compliment to his control of a game. And that helps him come to peace with teams all but surrendering his side of the field out of self-preservation.
"I try to be 100% every play, technique sound, everything," Alexander said. "So, when you are tested, you're ready. You stay on your game. You can't get frustrated. If you're a bad corner, they're coming at you a whole bunch. But if you're pretty damn good, they're staying away from you. That's all respect."
Maybe the talking, which manifests mostly on game days, is all he can do to stay interested. His on-field conversation with Fuller, according to Clemson junior cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, was "non-stop." Though Alexander would note that his mind games, when he chooses to play them, are rooted in fact (like reminding a receiver how few catches he actually has) or more subversive than basic verbal putdowns.
"I tell them I love them," Alexander said. "I don't think they like that very much."
How often he gets close enough to Ridley to whisper not-so-sweet nothings is a question to be answered Monday. Alexander will be waiting for the Crimson Tide's burgeoning star wideout, wherever he goes. He has watched Ridley and knows how much Alabama trusts its freshman receiver. He knows how much the Tide want to go to him. He knows Ridley is the guy.
He also knows Ridley and Alabama have a book on him, and that's fine. The brassy, voluble cornerback who spends hours upon hours dissecting video duly recognizes the small bit of irony there: Look all you want. What you see matters infinitely less than what you get. "When we play, it's a different ballgame," Alexander said. "Film ain't the same. He gets to feel my heart, my passion. That's what it's about."