I know, I know. Talking about Clemson’s defensive line again? Yes, because it is one of the biggest factors in determining who will win tomorrow. After the second failed drug test by star defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, he is officially suspended and ruled out for tomorrow’s contest. While there is no doubt this is a huge loss for the Tigers, the elite talent of the rest of the front-four still makes this a critical matchup for Notre Dame’s offense.
Their front four will consist of defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant and defensive tackles Albert Huggins and Christian Wilkins. Ferrell and Wilkins are both projected first round NFL draft picks. Wilkins was a unanimous All-American this season while Ferrell won the 2018 Ted Hendricks Award given to the nation’s best defensive end.
Lawrence’s replacement Albert Huggins is a senior with plenty of experience under his belt, playing in 12 of Clemson’s 13 games this year. He’s no where near the talent Lawrence was, but will still hold his own in the middle of the trenches.
Next to Huggins will be Christian Wilkins, who enters the game with 46 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries, and one forced fumble. To put it lightly, he is an absolute stud in the middle and will be the best interior defensive lineman Notre Dame has seen all season. He is the sole reason I don’t see the Irish relying on the ground game early or trying to run between the tackles consistently. Banks, Mustipher, and Kraemer will have to wear him down as the game goes along to hopefully open up some running lanes as the game goes on.
When it comes to the defensive ends, the good news is the Irish have faced a number of elite edge rushers over the course of the season. Michigan’s Chase Winovich and FSU’s Brian Burns specifically. The bad news is Clemson has two edge rushers with just as much, if not more, talent as those two. Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant have a combined 27.5 tackles for loss and 17 sacks. They have been nightmares for opposing offenses all season. Tackles Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey should be excited for this type of matchup, as this is a money game for them. Control and dominate two of the best edge rushers in the country on the big stage, and NFL scouts will notice.
With the amount of passing I expect Notre Dame to do, especially early in the game to keep the ball in Book’s hands, I wouldn’t be surprised to see tight end or running back help to control the outside pressure. Keeping Book upright is going to be a huge point of emphasis for the Irish offense, so any extra help is going to be expected.
The loss of Dexter Lawrence is a huge loss for Clemson’s front four and a pretty significant swing for the Irish. Even with his absence, this group is still one of if not the best in the country and it’s going to be a heavy-hitting dog fight all night long. The Irish front-five need to dig in and get the job done for this offense to be successful.