Notebook: Notre Dame, Clemson playing it safe with Dexter Lawrence situation
DALLAS — The Clemson football team didn’t dance around Wednesday when it came to the subject of Tiger All-American Dexter Lawrence and his possible suspension from Saturday’s Cotton Bowl matchup with Notre Dame.
Some Clemson players, during media availability at the Dallas Omni Hotel, even quipped about the NCAA cracking down on Lawrence, a junior defensive tackle, and two backups after finding a trace of the banned substance ostarine in their NCAA-administered drug tests.
“I’m like, ‘Dexter doesn’t need to take anything. He’s 6-foot-4, 350 pounds,” said Christian Wilkins, Lawrence’s cohort on the interior defensive line. “What more could a person of that build need to do to improve? It was funny to me, almost.”
Clelin Ferrell, a defensive end for the Tigers, also made light of the situation. Though, his question had nothing to do with Lawrence. A reporter simply asked how Brent Venables, Clemson’s defensive coordinator, remains intense.
“I don’t know. Maybe he needs to get drug-tested,” Ferrell said. “I don’t think they drug-test coaches. (The NCAA) might want to do that.”
The two learned of Lawrence’s predicament before most, receiving a message from him in their group text last week. Head coach Dabo Swinney notified his team Sunday night in Dallas, explaining that only a B-sample, which he estimated could be released Wednesday or Thursday, can save Lawrence’s eligibility against the Irish. Freshman second-team tight end Braden Galloway and redshirt junior reserve offensive lineman Zach Giella are in the same situation.
No. 2 Clemson (13-0) has since prepared for its College Football playoff semifinal against No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) as if it will be without Lawrence. AT&T Stadium plays host for the 4 p.m. EST Saturday matchup, which ESPN will broadcast.
The Irish are bracing as if Lawrence will play, although they downplayed the news.
“Nobody has talked about it, to be honest with you,” ND quarterback Ian Book said.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay ranked Lawrence as the nation’s No. 13 prospect for 2019. The junior recorded 44 tackles, 15 quarterback pressures, 7.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, one fumble recovery and an interception through 13 games this season.
The Tigers lauded their depth and experience behind Lawrence in 6-3, 315-pound senior Albert Huggins and 6-1, 300-pound redshirt sophomore Nyles Pinckney. The two, as well as a rotating 6-4, 310-pound redshirt freshman Jordan Williams, are in line to fill the Lawrence void.
“It really does not change much, because they do a really good job of changing it up,” ND offensive coordinator Chip Long said. “They are multiple up front. The guys right behind them are great players, too. Obviously, (Lawrence) seems like a really good leader out there, a veteran guy. But it does not change what we are trying to do and how we are going to do things.”
Lawrence logged 460 snaps this season. Huggins and Pinckney played for 307 and 285 snaps, respectively. Each collected 24 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss, and Huggins led between them in sacks (2.5) and quarterback pressures (11).
Williams has played in 10 games this season, recording 12 tackles, three TFLs and 1.5 sacks.
“They aren’t nervous. They aren’t afraid of this opportunity,” said Ferrell of Huggins and Pinckney. “They are battled tested, and both of them have played starter reps before, especially Albert. I consider Albert as a starter regardless of what game he plays. We really look at it as no big change-up, really.”
Venables told reporters that Lawrence has not taken practice reps since the team has been in the Dallas area.
“I don’t have any hope like that,” said Venables of Lawrence’s chances to play. “Hopefully, that does not sound bad, because I love Dexter.”
Venables also joked about Lawrence, referring to him as “injured” even though he is not. Trevor Lawrence, lithe freshman starting quarterback for the Tigers, used self-deprecating humor when addressing the news.
“As y’all can tell, I’m not taking anything,” Trevor Lawrence said.
Brandon Wimbush to transfer
Reports surfaced Monday night that Brandon Wimbush, ND’s backup quarterback, intends to take a grad transfer following the conclusion of this season. Two days later, Long said he has not spoken to Wimbush about the news.
“We are 100 percent focused on Clemson, and so is Brandon,” Long said. “He had a great practice yesterday. What his future holds, we wish him nothing but the best. He’s been a great player for me and one that I hold dear to my heart.
“Whatever he decides to do, he’s going to be successful in whatever he wants to do. But right now, everybody is 100 percent focused on Clemson.”
Long otherwise danced around confirming the reports, telling reporters to ask Wimbush when he’s available to the media on Thursday. Miles Boykin, ND’s starting junior receiver, said he had no clue it would be announced and that he has not talked with Wimbush.
But he acknowledged the untimely releasing of the news.
“I would bet that he’s upset, just because he’s such a team guy and does not want any attention on him or taken away from the team for this game,” Boykin said.
Wimbush would join Kelly Bryant, formerly of Clemson, and Justin Fields, formerly of Georgia, as highly touted quarterbacks on elite teams to transfer this season or after it. No matter what he decides, Wimbush will finish this season with the Irish.
“That’s been the case since I started coaching, but Twitter wasn’t around,” Long said. “You have four quarterbacks, one doesn’t play and transfers. It wasn’t that big of a deal. That’s just the numbers game of college football. Only one guy can play.
“These kids have a lot more voices in their heads than they used to. It’s just the world they live in. I’m glad I didn’t have to live in that.”
A turning point
Notre Dame’s director of football performance Matt Balis threw ND’s team a curveball in July, tasking his players with unique conditioning day.
The Irish were to run every step at Notre Dame Stadium. And that they did. All 85 scholarship players, as well as the walk-on players, weaved their way through the thousands of steps for hours.
At the time, it seemed like an odd exercise. Linebacker Drue Tranquill, however, now recalls it as a key point that set up ND’s 12-0 season.
“It was a really unifying activity for our team, as well as a really grueling exercise,” Tranquill said. “It was cool to kind of culminate there on the field as the sun was rising. It almost felt like a new dawn in Notre Dame football history.”
Tranquill reflected on another moment this season — when ND outscored Stanford 14-0 in the fourth quarter en route to a 38-17 home victory on Sept.29. Perhaps the Irish would not have conjured the strength to fend off the Cardinal without moments like Balis’ July workout.
“Their quarterback was getting up slow; he did not want to be in there,” Tranquill said. “(Running back) Bryce Love was hobbling around. We knew we had them on the ropes. I think that physical confidence in our stamina, in our strength in the fourth quarter came out. We just rattled them and took them out in the fourth quarter. That was a really, for me at least, a big turning point in the season.”
Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa update
Irish head coach Brian Kelly was optimistic about the progress of his backup defensive tackle. Tagovailoa-Amosa broke his right foot in the Sept. 1 opener against Michigan and has not played since.
He’s in line to rotate in Saturday behind All-America starter Jerry Tillery on Saturday. ND Insider reported that Tagovailoa-Amosa donned two knee braces in Monday’s practice, however defensive coordinator Clark Lea put any concerns to rest.
“They have the option,” said Lea of wearing the braces. “Obviously if there is a concern, we will mandate it in practice. But they have the option to in practice. I think a good number of our guys do. It has little to do with previous injury and more precautionary.”
WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) vs. No. 2 Clemson (13-0)
WHEN: Saturday, 4 p.m. (EST)
WHAT: CFP Semifinal/Cotton Bowl
WHERE: AT&T Stadium (100,000); Arlington, Texas
RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)
LINE: Clemson by 12½