GLENDALE, Ariz. — A little more than 11 months ago, Clelin Ferrell occupied a spot on the same University of Phoenix Stadium turf in the same No. 99 jersey and stood ready to contribute at defensive end for Clemson in the national championship game. That this most certainly would not happen was beside the point. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament as a high school senior and spent his first college season regaining strength and timing, concentrating on reconstruction rather than production. Also, he simply wasn’t needed; if the program was flush anywhere, it was along a feral defensive line anchored by two future early-round draft picks at Ferrell’s position. Given all this, Ferrell’s position coach, Marion Hobby, pulled his young and rehabbing protégé aside a few weeks into the 2015 season and delivered a hard truth with as much empathy as he could muster. I really don’t want to play you, Hobby said. And he would not. Ferrell took a redshirt. As a result, when his team took the field against Alabama in the title game, there was zero chance he would play.
Regardless, Ferrell strapped on his pads and put on his uniform and helmet. They still served a purpose. “I wanted to get as close to the moment as I could,” the 6' 5", 265-pounder said late Saturday, on a night where he was anything but a bystander.
No, Clemson defensive linemen no longer have to wait exceedingly long for their moments. A 31–0 ransacking of Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl earned the program its second consecutive berth in the College Football Playoff championship game, while also providing a very unambiguous reminder about what constitutes the underpinning of the entire operation. It is really nice to have a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist at quarterback. It is arguably even nicer to lose NFL talent year after year and then start two teenage freshmen and a sophomore in a playoff semifinal and create carnage from the first snap to the last. The Tigers faced a top-10 offense and a top-10 rushing attack and amassed 11 tackles-for-loss, upping their season total to 123, the third most in school history. Seven of those stops were credited to that monstrous defensive front. Three of them belonged to Ferrell, who earned game defensive MVP honors not a year after literally doing nothing during the Tigers’ last appearance here.
He is emblematic of the defensive line production line that has allowed Clemson to ascend to a spot among the nation’s elite programs. A talented, athletic, unmanageable front is the ideal substructure for the pursuit of championships. Through development and now high-level recruiting, the Tigers unload and reload without a drop in expectations or results at a crucial position group, never mind how many outsiders wonder how long they can keep it going. “What are you going to do next?” Hobby said with a smile, echoing the prevailing questions. “Those guys hear that, too. They take pride in saying, What am I, chopped liver?”
The future is never too far away on Clemson’s defensive line, an axiom its members must grasp quickly. Ferrell already did the calculations during that championship game loss to Alabama last January. Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, the stud edge disruptors on that team, the guys Ferrell called his “big brothers,” were likely not going to be around for a repeat performance. The professional ranks beckoned. “I had to say to myself, Man, these two guys are probably going to go to the NFL, I have a chance to come in and help the team next year, because we definitely want to get back to this,” Ferrell said. (Lawson indeed was a first-round pick of the Bills and Dodd went to the Titans in the second round.) He was not alone. Ferrell’s classmate, former top-30 recruit Christian Wilkins, was a starter as a freshman. Watching from the locker room that night was perhaps the most terrifyingly indomitable force yet: Dexter Lawrence, the 18-year-old, 345-pound mid-year enrollee and the country’s No. 2 overall prospect. While afforded a veteran anchor in All-ACC defensive tackle Carlos Watkins, who recorded two tackles-for-loss and two pass breakups on Saturday, the imminent personnel losses made clear the group’s mission: Clemson’s youth, and a good part of its defensive fortunes, was going to be on the line, like it or not.
“We all just knew,” Wilkins said. “Me, Austin (Bryant) and Cle, we would just say, Hey, it’s our time. It was never their time this young as redshirt freshmen and sophomores. But we know we’d have that chance. We’re young, but we’re ready. Let’s do our thing. We know no one is going to stop us.”
Bludgeoning Ohio State wasn’t necessary to confirm that theory. Wilkins led the team with 12 tackles-for-loss during the regular season, Lawrence became the ACC’s defensive rookie of the year and Ferrell recorded multiple tackles-for-loss in defining games against Louisville, Florida State and Virginia Tech in the ACC title game. But the Fiesta Bowl once again underscored that the self-sustaining defensive line dynamic bolsters Clemson’s entire operation and brings it to the precipice of championships.
Coaches insisted there was nothing exotic or new about how they deployed their defensive line to corral Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett and limit the damage of a run game averaging 250 yards per night. “Pretty basic and vanilla,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “Those guys just won. We really preached, you have to win one-on-one. They’re not going to turn guys loose. You have to win one-on-one when you get to this stage.” Which makes the destruction all that much more impressive, actually: Clemson coaches felt the Buckeyes’ offensive line featured five future NFL players, and the Tigers didn’t require any gimmicks to savage them. Such was the line’s dominance, in fact, that Lawrence didn’t record a tackle and Ohio State’s All-America center Pat Elflein nevertheless sought him out to deliver a message after the game. You’re a monster, Elflein told Lawrence. What’s more: Ferrell’s first tackle-for-loss of the night arrived against an overloaded formation that Clemson hadn’t prepared for.
So even when the Buckeyes fooled everyone on Saturday, they went backwards. “When they did that, that wrinkle, that was kind of crazy,” Ferrell said. “I was out there playing on air but I felt like I could get it done.”
It’s self-evident that the Tigers would not be positioned for a rematch with the Crimson Tide without their lodestar quarterback. Deshaun Watson amassed 316 total yards and three total touchdowns against Ohio State, unleashing multiple rocket-fueled big-boy throws to set up a couple scores while unfurling his own sidewinding, eyebrow-raising, one-side-of-the-field-to-the-other 33-yard scramble to position his team for another, a dash that had the junior Heisman finalist laughing on the sideline when he watched the replay on the big screen. In no way was Watson a liability entering the Fiesta Bowl. But his 13 interceptions on the season, given the ball-hawking secondary Ohio State ran out against him, smacked of a possible liability.
Watson did throw two picks, but his more spectacular exploits ensured the night wouldn’t be remembered for that. He has been a runner-up three times in big moments in the last year—twice at Heisman ceremonies, once to Alabama last January—and on Saturday he played more than sufficiently and earned another chance at, as his offensive coordinator put it this week, “the trophy nobody votes on.” “All the Heisman stuff wasn’t on my mind,” Watson said. “Regardless of if I would have won it or not, I was still going to play hard and play Clemson football and try to be the best I could be. Lamar (Jackson) deserved the Heisman. That’s who won it. That’s who got it. But my main focus is getting a ‘W’ here and moving on to the next one. And that’s what we’ve got.”
Clemson would not be the same without Watson, naturally. But nor would it be anywhere close to a title without the marauding defensive line it manages to roll out annually. With 90 seconds left in the game Saturday, Hobby gathered his crew on the sideline. He stood in the middle of a mass of humanity that put its arms on each other’s shoulders. Then a Clemson staffer snapped a picture with Hobby’s phone. It was a moment seized and a moment worth savoring but also a sign of things to come: The faces in that picture will come and go, but no matter who’s next, it is unlikely anyone will stop smiling.