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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, December 27, 2018 1:00 am

Clemson could be missing vital cog

Defensive lineman facing suspension after failed drug test

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Cotton Bowl

Who: Notre Dame vs. Clemson

Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

When: 4 p.m. Saturday

Records: Notre Dame 12-0, Clemson 13-0


DALLAS – Clemson's defensive line is one of the strengths of its undefeated team. 

When the No. 2 Tigers take the field against No. 3 Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday, however, it's looking more likely they will be without one of the key pieces of that dominant front.

Junior defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence, a first-team All-ACC tackle and potential first-round NFL draft pick, failed an NCAA drug test and Clemson coaches are acting as if he will be suspended for the College Football Playoff matchup against the Irish.

Two Clemson backups, offensive lineman Zach Giella and tight end Braden Galloway, also failed drug tests. All three players tested positive for trace amounts of the banned muscle-booster ostarine.

Lawrence would be by far the most significant loss of the three players, costing Clemson its 6-foot-4, 350-pound difference-maker in the middle. Lawrence and his teammates could still be cleared if a second sample comes back clean, but Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables did not sound optimistic.

“I don't have any hope like that,” Venables said. “Hopefully that doesn't sound bad. I love Dexter and have great appreciation for who he is and the work he has put it in. You feel heartbroken for him.”

Lawrence was a second-team All-American in 2017 and was one of three Clemson defensive linemen to earn All-ACC honors this season, joining Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins. The Wake Forest, North Carolina, native racked up 44 tackles, including 71/2 for loss, and 11/2 sacks this season. He also intercepted a pass and batted down three more.

Lawrence was surprised by the positive test and originally thought it was a joke when Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told him about it. His fellow defensive linemen were equally shocked.

“When I first heard, I just thought it was interesting,” said Wilkins, a first-team All-American at defensive tackle. “I'm like, 'Dex doesn't take anything.' He's 6-5, 350 pounds. What more could a person of that build need to do to improve their (body), you know what I mean? It was just funny to me almost.

“I don't know how that could happen. He's clearly not taking anything. He doesn't need to take anything. ... It's unfortunate.”

While Clemson prepares as if Lawrence will not play, the Irish are still planning to see the destructive lineman on the field Saturday. 

Center Sam Mustipher, who would be one of the primary blockers trying to stop Lawrence if the Clemson lineman does play, was taking nothing for granted. The Irish can't afford to assume.

“(Lawrence) is a good player and I'll believe it when he doesn't show up on Saturday,” Mustipher said. “But every game I've gone into it, I've learned a long time ago you have to prepare to play the best. No matter whether he plays or not, we're going to do the same job. If we play what we're capable of, I think we'll be fine. When a guy goes out, it's not changing our fundamental things.”

If Lawrence can't play, Clemson has two viable backups in Albert Huggins and Nyles Pinckney. Both have played significant snaps this season and they've combined for 37 tackles, six for loss, and 21/2 sacks.

“That roster is so deep in talent I'm not concerned we're not going to get a good challenge up front,” Mustipher said. “I know we will, and we're looking forward to that.”

The results of Lawrence's second sample were expected to be released late Wednesday or today.

Clemson will appeal a positive test for any of the three players, but the appeal would not be adjudicated before the Cotton Bowl.