The first Alabama-Clemson national title game happened Jan. 11, 2016, but 28 days before that, a boost already had been given to the rematch. On Dec. 14, 2015, Wake Forest High in North Carolina held one of those assemblies at which a football player announces his college choice, and the lights went out.
It served excellent effect, and the audience yelped and whatnot, and then when the lights came on, it yelped and whatnot still more because a giant human wore an orange cap with a white paw on the front. The player’s mother, Julia Parker, stood to hug a recruit ranked No. 2 in the country by Rivals.com and 247Sports.com. He was headed to Clemson.
Defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence then told a batch of reporters, in his gentle way: “It was hard because [North Carolina] State, you know, they’re the home team. I could have been a hometown hero and all the other things. I got the feel, but it wasn’t as good as the feel of Clemson.”
A year and change later, Lawrence is a national fascination, the way 6 feet 5 and 342 pounds with size-16 shoes often can be in a country that values the large. He’s an unmissable emblem of Clemson’s fresh place in the sport’s pantheon. From station to station in media sessions before last week’s Fiesta Bowl, teammates deployed that quirky former insult but present-day compliment, “freak.” During the regular season, Coach Dabo Swinney had expressed no surprise at Lawrence’s prowess and said, “You’re talking about a phenomenal athlete that’s 342 pounds and can run and a great kid and smart and strong.”
More than that for now, Lawrence is a leading reason Clemson’s national title rematch Monday night in Tampa comes with a meaningful difference from its predecessor, which featured two winners but Alabama as the champion by 45-40.
That game boasted a somewhat surprising dance between Alabama’s frightening front seven and Clemson’s wondrous quarterback and offense. The Tigers gained 550 total yards and left the Crimson Tide’s defenders uncharacteristically heaving, such that Alabama had to convert an onside kick with more than 10 minutes left to get a respite and turn the game. That the dance can continue in Tampa lends this 2017 game its foremost fascination.
Yet a new force has crammed itself into that spotlight and threatened to tilt the game. The New Year’s Eve sight of the Clemson defensive line thwarting and nullifying an Ohio State offense that suddenly could not, then did not, score has thrown into the mix a second highbrow defense, stocked with a player some peg as the No. 1 choice in the — no, really — 2019 NFL draft.
Curiously, Lawrence had no tackles in that 31-0 mauling , though it’s a fair bet that when the coaches reviewed the tape, they noticed that he had north-of-zero effect.
“I think he’s going to have an unreal career,” linebacker and leader Ben Boulware said as it all got going last summer. “Combination of his size . . . he’s a mammoth. Being able to run a 4.8 [in the 40-yard dash], he’s a freak athlete. For him being so blessed, physical appearance. He knows what he has to do. . . . He’s kind of shy but also very mature. I just think he knows the football will take care of itself.”
It began doing so right away, in his debut game at Auburn, when Lawrence recorded Clemson’s first sack of the season and, to boot, blocked for running back Wayne Gallman on a one-yard touchdown. Lawrence told Clemson reporters, “It felt special that the coach trusted me enough to put me out there,” and, of the touchdown run, “Nobody was in the hole. I was expecting somebody.”
He was on his way to a season with 58 tackles, nine tackles for losses, 6½ sacks (including two in the ACC championship against Virginia Tech) and December raves all around, including from teammate Carlos Watkins, who told 247Sports.com, “He’s taught me that there are human beings like that out there.”
By the time the unit and the defense got to the Fiesta Bowl after all that time to prepare, Lawrence had become a routine topic. In the game, end Clelin Ferrell from Richmond, himself a redshirt freshman, became the MVP after recording three tackles for losses of a hefty, hurtful 26 yards and a sack. He pronounced the whole thing “crazy.”
The end on the other side, Christian Wilkins, a sophomore from Springfield, Mass., made three tackles with one for a loss. Watkins, a senior from Mooresboro, N.C., had three tackles and two for losses. In a big-boy, major-program kind of way, they became the foremost reason Ohio State got a meager 215 yards and looked sorely east-west rather than north-south.
By Monday, they will be another focal point in a game loaded with them, with one guy the easiest to spot.