DALLAS — Todd Bates often uses his experiences as a player in his role as Clemson’s defensive line coach. Maybe he demonstrates to his linemen pass-rushing moves he employed while a defensive end at Alabama, or maybe he offers advice on juggling academics and athletics. He might suggest a good method to scouting an opposing offensive lineman, or share the best way to game plan for a particular offensive scheme. This week, as the No. 2 Tigers (13–0) prepare to face No. 3 Notre Dame (12–0) in the College Football Playoff semifinal, Bates’s college lessons are coming in handy more than ever—he knows exactly how his standout junior, Dexter Lawrence, feels. “For me, this situation is near and dear,” Bates says.
In spring 2003, as a sophomore at Alabama, Bates failed an NCAA drug test after ingesting the muscle-building supplement Ripped Fuel, one he later found out was laced with the banned substance ephedra. “I lost my entire junior year,” Bates says in an interview with Sports Illustrated Thursday during Clemson’s media day ahead of Saturday’s Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium. “I talked to Dexter about that. It was an honest mistake. You don’t do things on purpose to get yourself in trouble or jeopardize your team. But you learn from it. It’s how you respond from it. I came back my senior year and became a team captain.”
Surrounded by dozens of reporters Thursday, Lawrence vehemently pronounced his innocence in his first public comments since news emerged Monday about his failed drug test, proclaiming he did not intentionally use the banned performance-enhancing drug ostarine. The failed test carries with it an immediate one-year suspension, and though Clemson is still waiting for the result for Lawrence’s second sample, the feeling is that he’ll miss the semifinal and, without the rare victorious appeal, a potential championship game, too.
A projected first-round NFL draft pick and the anchor of one of the country’s best units, Lawrence has found himself in the crosshairs of the biggest story in college football. He chose to attend Thursday’s media day because he’s a “leader,” he said, and calmly fielded dozens of drug-test related questions over a 45-minute stretch while seated at a table on the AT&T Stadium field. He spoke about the difficulty of delivering the news to his mother—“it was hard” on her, he said—and he talked about how school officials are trying to determine how the product arrived in his system, like “what I’ve done differently or drank differently,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense. We’re all trying to figure it out.”
For all those who believe he’s lying, the soft-spoken Lawrence has a message for them, too: “I have too much pride in myself. I love my team and family too much to do an act like that. I’m not that type of guy to put that in my body.” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney delivered the news to Lawrence in a phone call last Thursday, asking his big nose guard if he had purposely ingested the PED. “I was looking at my phone like, ‘Are you crazy for asking me something like that?’” Lawrence recalled. Two other Clemson players failed drug tests with the same such substance in their system, reserve lineman Zach Giella and tight end Braden Galloway. The only common denominator among the three is the close proximity of their lockers in Clemson’s home locker room, Lawrence said.
The school’s internal investigation continues with hopes of uncovering a basis for an appeal, something not often won. In fact, Bates’s appeal ended in a 3–2 decision against him in 2003, he recalls Thursday from AT&T Stadium. He consumed Ripped Fuel not knowing it contained ephedra, a substance the U.S. Food and Drug Administration later banned from all products. Bates served as a scout team defensive end in fall of 2003, using his suspended junior season to help Mike Shula’s first squad in any way he could. He was named scout team player of the week 10 of 12 weeks that fall. “I went to his room last night to talk to him a little bit,” Lawrence says of Bates. “He’s been there for me. He said, ‘I feel for you. I had to go through something like that.’”
Fifteen years later, Lawrence’s role is as Bates’s temporary assistant defensive line coach, leading his own teammates through drills during practice here in Texas. “You watch the near guy. I’m gonna watch the far guy,” Bates told his protégé at a recent practice. “We’re going to talk and we ain’t going to miss a thing. He’s like, ‘Well, can I get a whistle.’” The Clemson equipment staff obliged, and Lawrence began tutoring the man who is expected to replace him, Albert Huggins, a journeyman of a player who’s starting opportunity comes under the most peculiar of circumstances. “Time for me to step up and show the world what I got,” Huggins said Thursday.
Huggins and Lawrence weren’t always the best of friends, they admit. Lawrence arrived as a freshman and took snaps from Huggins, then a sophomore. At one point during that season in 2016, the duo was embroiled in a wrestling match in which Lawrence physically lifted Huggins and dropped him on the other side of the locker room. “That day, I knew he was a special guy,” Huggins says, now laughing about their early animosity. “When you come in (as a sophomore) thinking maybe you’re going to get some more reps and then Dexter comes in and it’s like we’ve got to compete and work… he won. It is what it is. I never gave up. That’s the main thing. I stuck it out and I’m glad I did.”
And now he’s here, replacing one of the better D-lineman in Clemson history on the grandest stage. Huggins was a much ballyhooed high school player himself. In fact, he signed with Clemson as the state of South Carolina’s consensus top player, a first-team prep All-American and a top-15 defensive lineman in the 2015 class. Four years later, he’s started two games and is a rotational player as a senior who’s received more than 150 fewer snaps this season than Lawrence. “It’s never about him,” Bates says. “If it was about him, he probably would have just transferred.” Huggins is known on the team as “Big Bert.” He’s from a blue-collar family in Orangeburg, S.C., a town of 12,000 in the central part of the state. His mom is a factory worker and his dad is a self-employed mechanic who’s turned his son into a car enthusiast. “If I get some money,” Huggins smiles, “I want a Mercedes 6x6, something expensive.”
But before his NFL money-making days, he’ll be responsible for filling the cleats of the 350-pound Lawrence against a Notre Dame rushing attack that averages 41 attempts and 190 yards a game and has scored 27 times this season. Clemson practice recently has revolved around inside rushing drills with an eye to slowing the Irish, Huggins said. He knows he needs to make perfect his technique, most important of which is to keep his pads low. Bates has confidence in Huggins, and so does this team’s new D-line coach, the man Huggins will replace Saturday. “Seeing him grow throughout these years has been amazing,” Lawrence says. “You can see it on the field this year, that he’s dominating. I told Coach Swinney in the summer, ‘”Albert is ready. Give him his opportunities.’” Well, he’s got it.