UPDATE 1/3/19: Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich announced on Thursday that Lawrence will not play in Monday’s national title game.
Dexter Lawrence wore a Cotton Bowl Champions hat in the Clemson locker room Saturday after his team throttled Notre Dame, 30–3. Lawrence had been relegated to the sideline after he was suspended by the NCAA following a failed drug test that revealed traces of the banned substance ostarine in his system, but that didn’t stop him from being a cheerleader during the game and celebrating with his teammates afterward.
It’s unknown at this point if Lawrence will be available to play for the Tigers in the national championship game Monday against familiar title game rival Alabama. As of early this week, coach Dabo Swinney had no update on the situation of the three players who failed drug tests.
“I have not learned anything,” Swinney said Monday on a teleconference. “Obviously we played and traveled all day yesterday, but [athletic director] Dan Radakovich is leading that front and I know that they’ll be having some meetings and stuff today and trying to figure out what the moving-forward process is going to look like. Obviously we don’t have a lot of time for this game.
“I’m hopeful that maybe something positive will come out, but I don’t know anything at all.”
Beyond that information, Swinney noted there would be an appeal process for the players, given the failed test carries an immediate one-year suspension. (The week before the semifinals, two NCAA officials told SI’s Ross Dellenger that the turnaround time for the appeals process in these cases, along with the rarity that an appeal is successful, would make it highly unlikely Lawrence’s case is resolved quickly enough for him to play in the playoff.) That's not the end of the world for Lawrence, who can forgo his final season of eligibility and enter the NFL draft. The two other players who tested positive, freshman tight end Braden Galloway and redshirt junior offensive lineman Zach Giella, don't have a first-round projection to fall back on.
Clemson’s defense held up just fine against Notre Dame without Lawrence as Albert Huggins, Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams stepped up. The Tigers made it an impossible afternoon for Fighting Irish quarterback Ian Book, sacking him six times and holding the Irish running game to 88 rushing yards, Notre Dame’s second-lowest total this season.
“It was the next-man-up mentality,” said defensive end Austin Bryant, who led his team with six tackles—three for loss—and two sacks in the semifinal game. “Of course we miss Dex. He’s a great player and a great personality to have on your defense when times get tough. But those guys stepped up and did an awesome job. I’m just proud of them and proud of Dex for cheering them on and being there for them whenever they needed someone to lean on.”
Clemson’s depth without its first-round defensive tackle was admirable against Notre Dame. Not every program can be so lucky.
Now the story changes as Clemson prepares to play in its third national championship in four years. How much could not having Lawrence hurt this defense against Alabama’s high-powered offense? It didn’t hurt it against Notre Dame: Book was limited to a season-low 160 yards passing, the Irish reached the red zone just once, on a drive that ended in a field goal, and Book never attempted a pass to a receiver in the end zone. Lawrence’s sideline cheering was enough in that respect.
This week, the Tigers have a more unique challenge. First, there’s preparing for Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who showed no signs that he had recently had surgery on his left ankle during a 45–34 Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma. Only after the game, when he was in a protective walking boot, was that a topic of conversation. Tagovailoa threw more touchdowns (four) than incomplete passes (three) against the Sooners, with no interceptions. He was sacked once (Oklahoma’s defensive line isn’t exactly on the same level of Clemson, but Alabama’s offensive line only allowed about one sack per game anyway against a schedule featuring multiple fearsome SEC pass rushes).
Tagovailoa’s journey from last year’s national championship savior to the top two of this year’s Heisman Trophy voting has put him in an elite category of his own. He has sniper-like precision, rarely makes mistakes (41 TD to four interceptions this season) and has propelled Alabama’s offense to No. 2 in the country, averaging 47.7 points per game. His worst games have come when he’s been hit early and often, but only a few teams have the talent to realistically hope to do that at full strength, let alone missing a critical member of their front seven.
Clemson had to have seen what Alabama running back Josh Jacobs did to Oklahoma. Early in the second quarter with the Tide leading by three possessions, Jacobs caught a pass from Tagovailoa and ran 27 yards for a touchdown while obliterating a defensive back on his way into the end zone. His juke of OU cornerback Parnell Motley later in that quarter quickly joined that touchdown in making the rounds on social media. Jacobs accounted for 98 of Alabama’s 200 total rushing yards against Oklahoma and has proven to be a terror in space.
Lawrence wouldn’t be the guy in charge of running those guys down, but his absence means Alabama will be more focused on blocking guys like Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, who then won’t be as free to make plays to slow the Tide. And to have success against such an unforgiving offense, Clemson will ultimately have to slow a run-pass-option that looked flat-out unstoppable against the Sooners, which starts with limiting the threat of big gains from runs through the interior of the line. There’s no doubt this group, which leads the nation in yards per play allowed, is built better for the task than Oklahoma was, but again, whatever success the Tigers are able to have most likely will come without their hulking tackle.
Obviously, there’s nothing Clemson can do about Lawrence’s situation. He’s denied that he intentionally ingested the banned substance and said at Cotton Bowl media day that he was confused when Swinney initially called him with the news. “I was looking at my phone like, ‘Are you crazy for asking me something like that?’” Lawrence said, later adding, “I’m not that type of guy to put that in my body.”
The Tigers will again rely heavily on depth and play for their suspended starter. Against Notre Dame, a few players even wore shirts underneath their uniforms that said, “This is for Big Dex.” That motivational presence was enough of a contribution from Lawrence to beat the Irish, but his absence will loom larger as Clemson works with a smaller margin for error in its bid to knock off the defending national champs.