Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has a newfound sympathy for teams that have had to block Clemson’s dominant defensive line last year.
Now it’s the Tigers who are preparing to block a Crimson Tide defensive front that Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said is the deepest he has had since joining Alabama’s staff in 2007.
“That’s what they remind me of, is our last year defense up front because we were so big, experienced and talented and that’s what Alabama is,” Swinney said. “We had six seniors on the D-line last year. So it’s very similar in that regard because they can just roll guys in.”
Alabama leads the country in sacks with 50, led by Jonathan Allen with 12 and Tim Williams with 10.5. The Crimson Tide has 16 players who have recorded sacks.
Alabama also leads the nation in rushing defense, allowing 71 yards per game.
“They have a package for everything, whether it’s third down and short, third down and long, third down and medium. They have a whole different defensive line that comes into the game,” Clemson guard Eric Mac Lain said. “What’s going to be key for us is not substituting ourselves, so that they can’t substitute. I think if we can really get that going and tempo rolling, we’ll have a great chance.”
Clemson’s 2014 defensive line finished with 45 sacks, led by first round draft pick Vic Beasley, who had 12. Seniors Grady Jarrett and Corey Crawford helped anchor the defensive front. Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, who have combined for 19.5. sacks this year, came off the bench last season.
“Last year, we took out Beasley and we brought Shaq Lawson in. This year, we take Shaq out and we bring Austin Bryant in, who’s a great player, but he’s a true freshman,” Swinney said. “He’s been getting experience, and that’s the difference. I think we’re very talented. We just don’t have the experience and the depth that we did last year, but Alabama does, and that’s why they’ve been so dominant.”
The Crimson Tide is No. 2 in the country in total defense and No. 1 in scoring defense, and while Clemson might not have as much depth or experience, the Tigers aren’t far behind statistically. Clemson ranks No. 6 in total defense and has 43 sacks, which is fourth in the country.
“I think we’re just as deep as they are,” Bryant said. “I think the depth is just about the same on both sides.”
Clemson’s depth and entire defense could take a major hit depending on the health of Lawson. The junior, who has already announced he will enter the NFL Draft, played only two series against Oklahoma before leaving the game with a sprained MCL.
Lawson has been limited in practice this week, but plans to try to play. However, he likely will not be close to 100 percent. On a scale of 1-10, Lawson said Saturday his pain level is at an 8.
“It’s feeling better every day. I’m just continuing to try to get better every day,” he said. “It’s a very good chance I’ll play. I’m just taking it a day at a time and trying to get my knee better.”
With Lawson out against the Sooners, Bryant, Dodd and the rest of Clemson’s defensive front picked up the slack. The Tigers had five sacks against Oklahoma and held the Sooners to 67 rushing yards.
Bryant said Lawson’s status for the game will not change the freshman’s mindset.
“It’s the same as it’s been all year. If I was going to get 15 snaps or I was going to get 60 snaps, my mindset has to be the same, prepare the same way, prepare like you’re the starter,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been doing all season, and it won’t change this week because it’s the national championship.”
Dodd said the defensive line is confident it can have success, even if it isn’t 100 percent.
“I don’t know if he’s going to be out there or not, but we’re going to keep rolling. We know what we’ve got to do. We’ve got some guys that are just as hungry and are gonna match Shaq’s effort,” Dodd said. “I’m going to step up regardless. This is the biggest stage of college football right now. This is the national championship. I’m gonna give it all I’ve got.”
College Football Playoff National Championship
Who: Clemson vs. Alabama
When: 8:30 p.m. Monday
Where: Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
Alabama and Clemson have two of the best defenses in the country, led by outstanding defensive lines:
Star: A’Shawn Robinson
- He was an All-America selection for a defense that leads the country with 50 sacks
- Has a career-high 43 tackles, including 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks
- Has also produced 10 quarterback hurries, two pass breakups, a fumble recovery and one blocked PAT.
Star: Shaq Lawson
- He was a consensus First Team All-American
- Named to the All-ACC First Team and finished second in ACC Defensive Player of the Year voting
- Second in the ACC and third nationally with a 1.7 tackles for loss average
- Leads team with 10.5 total sacks.