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Why Dexter Lawrence’s backup at Clemson is even better than you’d expect

Albert Huggins is a “backup”, but in addition to being more talented than other backups, he’s gotten a lot of work.

ACC Football Championship - Clemson v Miami Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence is an elite defensive tackle. He became the most talked-about player leading up to the Cotton Bowl semifinal, when he was suspended after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug, along with two teammates.

Clemson and Alabama are college football’s 1-percenters. They are the two schools in the 99th percentile of the national S&P+ ratings, and with being that good comes 1-percenter problems. When they are without a player, he’s likely to be an incredible talent. But because they’re 1-percenters, the answer to the problem is a pretty good player too.

Lawrence’s backup, Albert Huggins, is talented. But beyond that, the whole roster is built as well as any could be to withstand the loss of someone like Lawrence.

First, let’s talk about what Clemson loses when Lawrence is out.

It’s still possible that Clemson could get Lawrence back for the National Championship against the Tide with an appeal to the NCAA. But if he’s out, Clemson doesn’t have a 6’4, 350-pound defensive anchor.

He’s the type of player who holds up at the point of attack — a classic double-team magnet. Just look at what the guy can do with raw power:

(Lawrence is No. 90 there, though anyone could guess that by watching.)

Lawrence’s combination of size and speed is rare. He pairs really well with fellow standout D tackle Christian Wilkins. Watch them work together here, and then watch what Lawrence does to Florida State’s center (and Deondre’ Francois’ pocket):

Lawrence does some things that just can’t be replaced. It’s why, when he goes soon to the NFL Draft, he’ll draw scouting reports highlighting these traits:

The 2019 NFL Draft is loaded with defensive line talent, and there are some freaky prospects in that group. Lawrence is one of those freaks as he is very athletic and quick inside a massive body. According to data from NFL teams, they have him checking in at 6’4, 350 pounds and running the 40-yard dash at 5.0 seconds, which would be a phenomenal time for a player that size

Those are big shoes to fill, but in the Cotton Bowl, Huggins held his own.

Huggins wears No. 67. The best part of game is his quickness off the line of scrimmage.

Here, Clemson runs a stunt, looping Huggins around the edge:

And he has a motor, shown here as he barrels toward Ian Book to force a throwaway:

Where Lawrence is elite as both a pass-rusher and run-stuffer, Huggins is slightly better as a pure pass-rusher. Bearing that out, he has 2.5 sacks to Lawrence’s 1.5, despite playing less.

Huggins’ speed likely has to do with his background as a defensive end. He just has more of a defensive tackle’s body at a listed 6’3 and 315. The Tigers shifted him inside, and now he’s a “high-NFL-caliber player” there, according to Dabo Swinney. He’s certainly not bad against the run, but he did play much better against the pass vs. Notre Dame.

One of his lowlights against the Irish (and there weren’t a ton) came on this play, where he got moved, and the Irish ran right through the gap. This is something Clemson can’t afford to have happen often against Alabama:

It’s easy to see why replacing Lawrence isn’t that big of a panic, when you consider how Clemson manages its roster.

Perhaps replacing isn’t really the best word to use for what Huggins is doing. Swinney already considered Huggins a “co-starter,” and the numbers don’t disagree.

Lawrence played 460 of Clemson’s 881 snaps up until the Playoff. Huggins played 307. It’s a disparity of only about 12 plays per game.

The Tigers’ squad rotation is a big part of their success. They play basically every rostered player, and it’s not just in garbage time or against a bad opponent. For instance: Clemson’s other so-called backup defensive tackle, Nyles Pinckney, played 285 regular season snaps.

Any championship-level roster has depth, but Clemson uses that depth heavily and keeps it fresh. Lawrence is great, but Huggins was the No. 1 player coming out of South Carolina as a high school prospect, and the No. 12 player at his position overall when he signed in 2015. He’d be the established starter for a whole bunch of college programs.

A player Huggins will battle with Monday is in a similar spot, because, remember, Bama has its own 1-percenter problems.

Alabama left guard Deonte Brown was also suspended for the semifinal and will still be suspended for the National Championship game.

In his place, the Tide are starting Lester Cotton Sr., who’s basically a swing guard for them. He started 18 games through his first three seasons at right guard, then moved over to the left at the beginning of 2018. Brown took his starting left-side spot in October, but now he’s out, and Cotton’s back in. Like Huggins, he remained a contributor while a backup.

Cotton, the No. 4 offensive guard prospect in the 2015 class, will try to make sure Huggins and the rest of the Clemson’s talented defensive front stay off Tua Tagovailoa — no matter who’s rotating in for the Tigers.