It is not the Christmas present Irish fans expected to unwrap this morning, but it is a gift in Notre Dame’s favor, nonetheless. As of Monday evening, Clemson will be without first-team defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence on Saturday in the College Football Playoff semifinal in Dallas (4 ET; ESPN). Lawrence and two reserve teammates tested positive for trace amounts of ostarine, per Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney.
While a B sample test could clear the three yet this week, that would be a surprise. For clarity here: Both halves of that sentence are rather standard in drug testing protocols.
“Obviously Dexter is a starter and a very, very significant player on our team,” Swinney said. “Even though [offensive lineman Zach Giella] hasn’t played as much and [tight end Braden Galloway] is a freshman, they’re still missing out on an opportunity that they have worked extremely hard for.
“Again, I don’t know how — if it is even in their system, how it got there. But I do know that these three young men have not intentionally done anything. There’s plenty of precedent where the same thing has happened across the country with other people. So there’s a process in place, and we’ll work through that.”
Without Lawrence, Clemson will turn to senior Albert Huggins and junior Nyles Pinckney. While no combination will make up for losing a player of Lawrence’s caliber, few teams would have options akin to Huggins and Pinckney in such a situation.
Lawrence: 6-foot-4, 350 pounds; 460 snaps this season; 44 tackles with 7.5 for loss including 1.5 sacks.
Huggins: 6-foot-3, 315 pounds; 307 snaps this season; 24 tackles with 3.5 for loss including 2.5 sacks.
Pinckney: 6-foot-1, 300 pounds; 285 snaps this season; 24 tackles with 3.5 for loss.
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With Lawrence, the Tigers had the best run defense in the country by advanced metrics. Notre Dame knew it had its work cut out for it.
“Clemson has a big athletic front,” Irish fifth-year center and captain Sam Mustipher said Monday. “They’ve shown that on film, the ability to move, get off blocks and make a lot of plays. It’s going to be a challenge for us, and we understand that. It’s just going back to the fundamentals and basics.”
Presuming the B sample test does not clear Lawrence, Mustipher should now be able to focus his attention on defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, himself a unanimous first-team All-American. In theory, Mustipher and one of the offensive guards should be able to slow Wilkins while the other guard faces Lawrence’s replacement. If this theory works as Notre Dame might hope, it would slow the inside penetration and allow junior quarterback Ian Book a chance to step up if pressured by either end, and considering possible No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Clelin Ferrell is one of those ends, that “if” might as well be a “when.” Ferrell finished the season with 10.5 sacks among 17 tackles for loss.
“We have a standard of Notre Dame offensive line play,” Mustipher said. “It’s been here long before I got here, long before those guys who moved on last year got here. And we take pride in what we do.”
Speaking of that offensive line …
Irish head coach Brian Kelly announced freshman offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons fractured his foot. Gibbons had not played yet this season and was not about to make his debut against Clemson’s defensive front in the Playoff semifinal.
All other pieces of Notre Dame’s roster are eligible and in Dallas, per Kelly. That includes — though not specifically discussed — senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. WatchStadium’s Brett McMurphy first reported Monday night Wimbush intends to transfer following this season, a report soon confirmed by Matt Freeman of Irish Sports Daily.
That decision comes as absolutely no surprise and will not affect the Playoff. Wimbush’s graduate transfer will come afterward.