DALLAS — Everyone at Clemson is preparing for life without Dexter Lawrence. He isn’t receiving snaps during Clemson’s bowl practices, for instance. He has instead moved into more of a coaching role, tutoring the young players expected to slide into his position in the middle of Clemson’s star-studded defensive line. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has such a lack of faith in Lawrence playing in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Cotton Bowl on Saturday against Notre Dame that he has already adjusted his rotation from a three-man version (Lawrence, Albert Huggins and Nyles Pinckney) to a “two-man,” he says. At least one person isn’t buying it: Notre Dame center Sam Mustipher, the guy who has spent the last few weeks studying for a one-on-one matchup with the potential top-10 pick. “I’ll believe it when he doesn’t show up,” he says. “I’m cynical.”
And on marches the top storyline at the Cotton Bowl on Wednesday, the first interview opportunity for players since Clemson coach Dabo Swinney announced that his projected first round NFL draft pick and two reserve players had failed NCAA drug tests, which would result in an automatic one-year suspension from the date of a failed test. The players had in their system a trace of the performance-enhancing drug ostarine, a substance not approved for human consumption and normally only found in illegal products. Lawrence’s teammates echoed what Swinney told reporters in announcing the news on Christmas Eve: He didn’t purposely ingest ostarine. Some are holding the slimmest of hopes that a second sample from the same drug test will clear the players. Results of that sample are expected soon, likely later Wednesday or Thursday.
In the meantime, the Tigers are preparing to be without the anchor of this squad’s most ballyhooed unit, a 6'4", 350-pound space-eater with 141 career tackles and 11 sacks. Lawrence is the interior presence that frees up playmaking linemates Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins, and he averages nearly 40 snaps a game. Don’t be confused by the hulking size. He’s nimble enough to have broken up three passes, recover a fumble, block a kick and score a rushing touchdown on offense. In The MMQB’s most recent mock draft, he came off the board at pick No. 14.
That’s why the news Monday sent reverberations through college football. Notre Dame players were “shocked and surprised,” Mustipher said Wednesday. He learned of the news after Swinney’s announcement hit social media Monday, three days after Clemson received a letter from the NCAA revealing the failed tests. Swinney told the team Sunday, but many of them already knew. Lawrence delivered the news to Wilkins and some others on the D-line. “It was like, we didn’t believe it at first. He gave us a quick rundown and then we heard more later,” Wilkins said Wednesday from the Omni Hotel in downtown Dallas. “He just told us and we didn’t believe it.” Ferrell says Lawrence is frustrated, especially since the ingestion of the drug “wasn’t intentional,” he says. “Dexter in general is a very positive person, but this is tough for him.”
Clemson officials are attempting to uncover how an illegal substance entered the body of one of their best players, Lawrence, and two others: freshman tight end Braden Galloway and junior offensive lineman Zach Giella. Wilkins claims Lawrence was not consuming any new supplements. “This isn’t something he was taking,” he said. Most players check with Clemson’s training staff before consuming outside products to make sure they’re not on the NCAA’s lengthy list of banned substances. While ostarine is illegal, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency reports that dietary supplement manufacturers have been known to insert the drug into products, something Venables suggestively nodded to on Wednesday. “We try to educate our guys,” he said. “We have a nutrition staff that does an awesome job at making sure they understand what they can do or can’t do. Everything is on this little website. You can see everything that you can and can’t take. As you guys probably know, there are so many things not regulated. It says X, Y, Z [is in the product], but there’s more to it.” Educational materials are not provided by the NCAA at test sites, but at least one school administrator is present. Packets of information are delivered each summer to member schools about new, updated drug-testing procedures and banned substances.
Clemson is presumably already in the process of an appeal. A request for an appeal must be made within five business days of the positive test, and all documents pertaining to the appeal must be submitted within 45 days. If the second drug sample returns positive, an appeal is the only route in overturning the suspension. NCAA appeals are not often won, says Mary Wilfert, the NCAA associate director of prevention and health promotion. Of the 25–30 drug-testing appeals annually, only about one to three are granted, depending on the year. This situation has an escalated timeline that makes things tricky, says Tim Nevius, a former NCAA enforcement officer who now leads a New York-based law practice that represents college athletes on a full-time basis. The semifinal is in three days and the championship game, if Clemson were to win Saturday, is scheduled for Jan. 7.
“I haven’t seen many situations were a player is banned from a bowl game and there’s an appeal in short order,” Nevius says. “The NCAA office is closed for the [holiday] break. That doesn’t mean they’re not doing anything. There’s someone responsible for a situation like this, but this is a real short time frame and they’d have to have some pretty compelling information to say this was an error. There has to be something compelling to convince them that the test was in error or the results weren’t inaccurate.”
According to Don Jackson, an Alabama-based attorney who’s spent the last three decades representing players in NCAA drug testing ordeals, two of the most common routes to winning a drug testing appeal are 1) showing that the school didn’t adequately educate the athlete on banned drugs or 2) proving it was an accidental ingestion. Jackson won an appeal a few years ago by proving that a former Big Ten running back ingested by accident his mother’s medication, a ruling that reinstated his eligibility but only after he missed a bowl game on suspension. “There’s no due process for student athletes in these hearings,” Jackson says. “If there was, before you take them off the field, you should go through an appeals process. Once a positive drug test comes back, you’re suspended. That system is flawed.”
Venables is treating Lawrence like any other injured player, he said. The defensive coordinator is not involved in the appeals process and has spent “zero time” debating if Lawrence will play. “I don’t know. ‘I don’t care’ would not be real honest, but I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it,” he said. Neither, apparently, have Notre Dame coaches. They have not addressed Lawrence’s potential absence with the team, quarterback Ian Book said. “If he plays, their D-line is good. If he doesn’t play, their D-line is still good,” Book said. Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long says Clemson’s defensive line goes 10 deep. “He’s a great player,” Long said of Lawrence, “but the guy who’s behind him has played just as many snaps and has played a ton of football.” That isn’t completely accurate. Lawrence has played 460 defensive snaps this season, well more than Huggins (307) and Pinckney (285). Lawrence is spending bowl practice coaching up that duo and others. He’s “hands on,” linebacker Tre Lamar said, with Huggins, Pickney and Jordan Williams, a redshirt freshman who has played just 132 snaps this year but whom Venables expects to play some. “Obviously there’s a reason we’re the starters, but we don’t really consider it so-called ‘next man up,’” Ferrell said. “It’s just put another guy in there. We trust you and feel like you can perform. It’s a group effort, not an individual matchup.”
At least for one guy on the field, Mustipher, his individual matchup is changing. The hours of film of Lawrence he spent watching might just be a waste. Huggins and Pickney escape blocks differently and use different pass-rushing moves. Deep down, he wants Lawrence to play because he wants to play the best of the best on the biggest of stages, he says, and he's preparing for exactly that. “Like I said, I’ll believe it when I see it.”