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Notre Dame And Clemson Downplay, Adapt To Dexter Lawrence’s Absence

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Fifth-year senior center Sam Mustipher has the mindset that Clemson’s defensive line will be formidable no matter who plays.
BGI/Bill Panzica

Of all the matchups in this Saturday’s College Football Playoff showdown between 13-0 Clemson and 12-0 Notre Dame, maybe the most intriguing is the Tigers’ mini-NFL franchise defensive line versus the Fighting Irish offensive line that was in a relative state of flux much of the 2018 campaign.

It became an even bigger storyline this week, too, when Clemson's 6-4, 350-pound nose tackle Dexter Lawrence — a projected first-round pick whom ESPN recently ranked No. 10 among its top 50 players in college football this year — was suspended after an NCAA-administered drug test found a trace of ostarine, a banned substance, in his system. (Two other reserves, tight end Braden Galloway and offensive lineman Zach Giella, have also been suspended).

There is a chance Lawrence’s eligibility could be saved against Notre Dame if his “B-sample” comes back clean, but the Clemson staff has not given any practice reps to Lawrence this week.

For Notre Dame fifth-year senior center and team captain Sam Mustipher, who would have been the one going up against Lawrence, his mindset remains unfazed.

“I'll believe it when he doesn't show up on Saturday,” Mustipher said. “I've learned a long time ago you have to prepare to play the best — no matter whether he plays or not.”

The mantra for the Notre Dame offensive line — and overall team in general — has remained consistent: It’s not about who you play, which is not under your control. What you can control is maintaining the right attitude toward any competition and executing the basic principles that have been taught throughout one’s career. Plus, players study on film more than just who is the starter in order to help them adjust to different personnel.

“If we play to what we’re capable of, I think we’ll be fine,” Mustipher said. “When a guy goes out, it’s not changing our fundamental things. … Here’s what he does differently than the guy in front of him. He escapes blocks differently. It's just learning those things. A lot of the backups we've already studied, so we know what they're going to do when they come in.

“… That roster is so deep in talent I'm not concerned we're not going to get a good challenge up front. I know we will, and we're looking forward to that.”

In addition to Lawrence ranking No. 10 overall on the aforementioned ESPN list, fellow interior defensive tackle Christian Wilkins was No. 5, and defensive end Clelin Ferrell was at No. 12.(Clemson running back Travis Etienne is No. 14. Notre Dame has four players on this list, led by junior cornerback Julian Love at No. 21, but no one from the offensive line.)

Replacements for Lawrence inside would include 6-4, 315-pound senior Albert Huggins (63 career tackles, 13 for loss and 7.5 sacks); 6-1, 300-pound redshirt sophomore Nyles Pinckney (38 career tackles, five for loss and a sack); and 6-4, 310-pound redshirt freshman Jordan Williams (15 tackles this season, 2.5 for loss, with 1.5 sacks).

Per Pro Football Focus, Lawrence took 465 snaps this year, which amounts to about 36 per game, while Huggins had 306, with 15 quarterback hurries and 15 run stops. However, most have occurred in mop-up roles, which Clemson has had plenty of this year. In the last eight games, the average margin of victory for the Tigers was 38.3 points. Still, the domino effect cannot be underestimated when suddenly a backup is thrust into a role with more snaps.

The presence of a dominant defensive front has enabled esteemed Clemson coordinator Brent Venables to not have to blitz as much while trusting the front to control the line of scrimmage. The Tigers rank third nationally against the run (93.0 yards per game) and are tied for the second-fewest points allowed (13.7 per game). Venables is taking the classic next-man-in approach that is part of Coaching 101.

“It's like an injury, and I've spent zero time, ‘Oh, is he going to play, what's the chance?’ I don't know,” said Venables, while also admitting he’s heartbroken for Lawrence. “Being real honest, but I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about it. I've got a lot of confidence in Albert and Nyles. They've played a lot of winning football — not just this year. Last year when Dexter was probably 50 percent of what he is now as a player, they both played a lot of really good football.

“So injuries are a part of the game, and that’s what we’re treating it like. I have nothing to do with the process, so I have spent no time really thinking about it.”

Huggins and Pinckney have been in the rotation much like a Kurt Hinish (323 snaps to Jonathan Bonner’s 392 at nose tackle) for Notre Dame, or liberal usage of reserve ends such as Daelin Hayes (431 snaps) or Ade Ogundeji (237 snaps).

“So now we'll play all two of them, plus Jordan Williams,” Venables said. “Jordan has gotten back healthy the last part of the season and he’s going to be a good player. So he’s repping in, too.”

Wilkins said he was stunned and actually thought it was almost comical that Lawrence is in his current pickle.

"I don’t know how that could happen,” Wilkins said. “He’s clearly not taking anything — he doesn’t need to take anything. [The positive test] could just come from anywhere. It’s unfortunate. I just know the guy taking his place will be more than prepared, and it’s a special opportunity on the biggest stage to perform and be able to help out the team. … I’m pretty sure they won’t let this opportunity pass to be successful and help the team as much as they can.”

Oftentimes, the absence of a premier player can have a galvanizing effect on a unit to prove that group’s excellence is not about just one individual.

“They’re not nervous or afraid of this opportunity,” Ferrell said. “They’re battle tested. Both of them have played starter reps before, especially Albert. I consider Albert a starter regardless of what game you play. So we really just look at it as no big changeup …

"You can't really replace a Dexter as far as what he brings, but Albert brings a skill set that's unique as well. … He has a natural just kind of bulldozer strength to him, and he has quickness to match it. Albert is an intelligent person as well, too. Game plans come to him easy.”

Meanwhile, Wilkins knows that even though the Clemson defensive line gets most of the publicity, the Notre Dame offensive line merits its own praise. Wilkins was a freshman in the Tigers’ 24-22 win over the Irish in 2015, and he said that was one of the best lines he ever encountered.

“When I think of Notre Dame I always think of a very good offensive line,” Wilkins said. “That’s no different now … it shows when you watch the tape, because they’re just really talented, they work well collectively as a unit, they don’t beat themselves, and they don’t make a lot of mistakes.”

The admiration increased even more with the knowledge that the Irish graduated two top-nine NFL picks along the line, guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey, plus lost their best player, left guard Alex Bars, to a torn ACL, in game five.

“It’s a testament to the guys on the team and their coaching staff just to be as productive and dominant as they've been,” Wilkins said.

It serves as a lesson to Clemson — in addition to the Fighting Irish — that strong team play and a winning culture can trump individual setbacks.

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