PHOENIX — Clemson lost All-American defensive end Shaq Lawson to a knee sprain on the sixth play of last week’s Orange Bowl semifinal against Oklahoma. What went through defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ mind seeing his best defensive lineman go down?
“I didn’t know for the rest of the [first] half he wasn’t out there,” Venables said here Saturday at Media Day for the national championship game. “That’s how caught up I get in what I’m doing.”
That Venables didn’t notice Lawson’s absence until halftime is a testament to just how well 14-0 Clemson played without him. But the Tigers would much prefer to have the nation’s leader in tackles for loss (23.5) available for Monday night’s title showdown with 13-1 Alabama.
Lawson, who suffered a sprained MCL, said Saturday there’s “a very good chance” he’ll play against the Crimson Tide. Pressed further, he put the chances at 60 percent. He’s still experiencing significant pain (8 on a scale of 1 to 10, he said) but was able to participate in the Tigers’ last on-campus practice Friday, albeit with limited contact.
On Sunday, coach Dabo Swinney said the Tigers expect their star D-lineman to play, saying Lawson “looked good yesterday” and has “done everything he needs to do.”
For Lawson, a junior who has already said he will enter this spring’s NFL draft, getting on the field Monday night would be the culmination of a long journey. A native of nearby Central, South Carolina, he grew up rooting for Clemson, even working the concession stands at Tiger Stadium. Playing in a national championship game for Clemson would be like a video game come to life – because he in fact used to take Clemson to the championship game on NCAA Football, even providing his own TV commentary.
“That’s the crazy thing about having this chance here right now,” he said.
But first, that knee has to cooperate.
If he can’t go, Clemson will turn to 6-foot-4, 265-pound true freshman Austin Bryant, who played the rest of the game against the Sooners. Despite losing one of the nation’s premier pass-rushers in Lawson, the Tigers held Oklahoma star Baker Mayfield to just 7.6 yards per pass attempt, sacked him five times and intercepted him twice.
That’s a typically dominant performance from Clemson, which holds opponents to 47.6 percent completions and ranks sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense.
“I am comfortable with Austin’s ability,” said Lawson. “He went out there last week when I went down and did a nice job for us. He did his job well and played to his standard. He was ready when his name was called and prepared for his opportunity and made the most out of it.”
Kind of like Lawson himself a year earlier. Crazy at it sounds, the projected first-rounder was himself a backup last season to 2015 first-rounder Vic Beasley. He still played plenty, amassing 44 tackles and 11 tackles for loss.
But it shows just how deep Clemson has stacked itself on the defensive line — much like its opponent Monday night. The Tigers lost not only Beasley but Atlanta Falcons tackle Grady Jarrett and fellow starters Corey Crawford and DeShawn Williams. With Lawson, Kevin Dodd, Carlos Watkins, D.J. Reader and Christian Wilkins filling their shoes, Clemson’s top-ranked 2014 defense fell to just sixth in yards allowed (301.6).
Even a talent like Bryant, just a year removed from high school, can step in during the biggest game of the season, and Venables’ defense doesn’t flinch.
“Coach [Dabo Swinney’s] philosophy is if they’re good enough, they’ll play,” Venables said of freshmen. “By the end of the year, they’re very experienced. Austin has played a lot.”
Clemson did have one thing going for it against Oklahoma that it doesn’t against Alabama — the Sooners started a pair of freshman offensive tackles that fared well enough in Big 12 play but could not handle the Tigers’ athleticism up front. The Tide trot out 6-foot-6, 326-pound sophomore left tackle Cam Robinson, a surefire first-rounder a year from now.
Lawson would be a worthy adversary.
“He would be as good as there is in the league,” Swinney said of Lawson’s prospects. “I think he’s first-round talent, and he’s going to be a great player. … They’re going to love him, because people look at him as a superstar player, but he’s as low-maintenance a guy as you’ll ever coach.”
With that level of praise, you would think such a standout’s potential absence Monday would weigh heavily on Swinney. That’s not how it works at Clemson.
“We’ll just put No. 91 [Bryant] in there, and hopefully he’ll play well,” said the Tigers’ coach. "We’re not going to cry about it. We’re going to play the game.”
No one would want to see Lawson risk further aggravating the injury, but that risk is minimal for an MCL sprain. Lawson himself says he won’t let potential pre-draft injury concerns prevent him from playing Monday night.’
“I don’t think about that at all," he said. "That’s not my concern. My concern is winning a national championship for my team."
Hopefully Lawson’s 60 percent estimate proves conservative. It would not feel right if the one-time 12-year-old Clemson concession stand employee misses his chance to play for the Tigers’ first national championship in 34 years.
“I’m going to miss Clemson,” he said Saturday. “That’s why I’m going to enjoy these last couple of weeks with my teammates to the fullest.”
He’d enjoy nothing more than the chance for one more sack or two before it’s off to the NFL.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter@slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.