WHEN CLEMSON last played Alabama for the national championship, a little more than 50 weeks ago, Clelin Ferrell strapped on his pads, slid on his number 99 jersey and stood ready to contribute. He also knew there was no chance that would happen. Ferrell, a defensive end, had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee before his senior year at Benedictine College Prep in Richmond and spent most of his first fall in college regaining strength in his leg. The Tigers' depth on the defensive line allowed the team to give Ferrell all the time he needed to fully recover. Ferrell took a redshirt year but felt it was important to be geared up during the title game. "I wanted to get as close to the moment as I could," the 6'5", 265-pounder says.
Last Saturday, Ferrell was part of the moment. His team ransacked Ohio State 31--0 in the Fiesta Bowl to earn a second straight berth in the national championship game. Afterward he stood among dancing teammates, cradling the game's defensive MVP trophy, which he won with three tackles or loss. His performance highlighted the strength of the Clemson program: It is great to have a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist—Deshaun Watson—at quarterback, but it's even greater to have a front four that can lose NFL-caliber talent year after year and start two freshmen and a sophomore in a playoff semifinal and still dominate the opposition. Seven of the Tigers' 11 tackles for loss against the Buckeyes were credited to that monstrous front, which features a trio of athletic 300-pounders and Ferrell.
This particular group is an extension of a unit that has boosted Clemson into the national elite. Through recruiting and development, the Tigers have consistently reloaded their D-line without a drop in expectations or results. Clemson has had five defensive linemen taken in the last two NFL drafts, which has led to a steady beat of questions asking how the Tigers will replace the losses. "The guys hear that," defensive ends coach Marion Hobby said with a smile in the locker room on Saturday. "They take pride in saying, What am I, chopped liver?"
Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd were the stud ends on the Clemson team that lost to Alabama last January. As Ferrell watched them, he recalls, "I said to myself, Man, these two guys are probably going to go to the NFL, I have a chance to come in and help the team next year because we definitely want to get back to this." (Lawson was a first-round pick of the Bills, and Dodd went to the Titans in the second round.) Ferrell was not the only one to recognize his time had come. Freshman Christian Wilkins, a top-30 recruit, was already an impact player. And watching from campus that night was defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, an 18-year-old, 342-pound midyear enrollee from Wake Forest (N.C.) High and the country's No. 2 prospect. All-ACC defensive tackle Carlos Watkins, a senior to be, would return, but Clemson's youth on the line would determine the team's future. "We're young, but we're ready," the 6'4", 310-pound Wilkins says. "We know no one is going to stop us."
Wilkins leads Clemson with 13 tackles for loss. Lawrence earned ACC defensive rookie of the year honors. And Ferrell recorded multiple tackles for loss against Louisville and Florida State and in the ACC title game against Virginia Tech. The plan to bludgeon Ohio State's vaunted offensive line was simple. "Pretty basic and vanilla," Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables says of his approach. "Our guys just won. We really preached, you have to win one-on-one when you get to this stage."
How dominant were the Tigers up front? After the game Ohio State's All-America center Pat Elflein sought out Lawrence to deliver a message: "You're a monster," he told him.
As impressive as the defensive line was, Clemson would not be heading to a rematch with Alabama without Watson, the dazzling quarterback who accounted for 316 total yards and three touchdowns against the Buckeyes. Between the junior's rocket-fueled throws and his sideline-to-sideline 33-yard scramble that had him laughing when he watched the replay, Watson reminded everyone what he can do against even a top-tier defense. "This year we want to flip the script and be the team to sit on the stage at the end," he said.
But a defensive front that can match Alabama's size and athleticism and stifle mobile quarterbacks will be just as valuable. With 90 seconds left in the Fiesta Bowl blowout, Hobby stood arm in arm with his players on the sideline as a Clemson staffer snapped a photo for posterity: It was a moment to savor.