Bama-Clem­son tilt loaded with de­fen­sive line prospects

The Island Packet (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY RALPH D. RUSSO

Qual­ity de­fen­sive line­men are just about the tough­est find in foot­ball.

“Well, I do think that most peo­ple would agree, whether it’s the NFL draft or try­ing to find guys and recruit guys when they’re in high school that have the size and ath­leti­cism to be ef­fec­tive in terms of their power, abil­ity to strike, as well as ath­letic enough to pass rush,” Alabama coach Nick Sa­ban said. “I think it’s even more dif­fi­cult now with sort of the spread be­cause there’s more loose plays, plays in space, where it re­quires guys to be able to run and play in space.”

No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clem­son be­lie con­ven­tional wisdom – which helps ex­plain why the Crim­son Tide and Tigers are play­ing in the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off for the fourth straight sea­son and third time in the na­tional championship game.

The 2015 ti­tle game be­tween the Tide and Tigers fea­tured 10 de­fen­sive line­men who were drafted from 2016-18, in­clud­ing six from Alabama. Two more from Clem­son who played in that game – de­fen­sive tackle Chris­tian Wilkins and end Austin Bryant – will be picked in April.

Wilkins and Bryant are part of a group of 10 edge rush­ers and in­te­rior de­fen­sive line­men who will be at Levi’s Sta­dium in Santa Clara, Cal­i­for­nia, for Mon­day night’s na­tional championship game who are likely to be se­lected in the NFL draft this year.

“The fact that we could have three to four, maybe five, firstround picks off two de­fen­sive lines, that just doesn’t hap­pen,” said Matt Miller, a draft an­a­lyst for Bleacher Re­port. “Alabama has three starters who are go­ing to be top 75 picks. The top-end tal­ent for ’Bama is crazy. Then you have Clem­son, where all four starters and the top re­serve are go­ing to be drafted. It’s great re­cruit­ing. It’s great de­vel­op­ment. The re­ally aced it with these groups.”

Alabama de­fen­sive tackle Quin­nen Wil­liams is a contender to be the first over­all pick, held by the Ari­zona Car­di­nals.

Go be­yond the de­fen­sive lines and more than 20 play­ers from Alabama and Clem­son could be se­lected in the next draft, de­pend­ing on how many ju­niors de­clare.

Miller said for Clem­son he has first-round grades on Wilkins, de­fen­sive end Clelin Fer­rell, sus­pended de­fen­sive tackle Dex­ter Lawrence and cor­ner­back Trayvon Mullen.

On the Alabama side, Wil­liams is one of five play­ers with first-round grades, along with de­fen­sive end Raek­won Davis, of­fen­sive tackle Jonah Wil­liams, safety Deionte Thomp­son and line­backer Mack Wilson. Tight end Irv Smith Jr. is bor­der-line first round.

Quin­nen Wil­liams was a ro­ta­tional player last sea­son,

play­ing be­hind first-round draft pick Daron Payne. Davis was ex­pected to be the star of this sea­son’s Alabama de­fen­sive line. In­stead, Wil­liams, a thirdyear sopho­more, has put to­gether one of the most dom­i­nant per­for­mances for a de­fen­sive line­man in re­cent mem­ory.

“A guy who can stop the run, who can rush the quar­ter­back. He em­bar­rassed Ok­la­homa’s O-line. That’s the best of­fen­sive line in col­lege foot­ball,” said Miller, who com­pared the 295-pound Wil­liams to Philadel­phia Ea­gles star Fletcher Cox and Chris Jones of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Alabama se­nior Isa­iah Buggs has had a break­out se­nior year with 91⁄ sacks and could slide into the sec­ond round. An­fer­nee Jennings (6-3 and 266 pounds) and Chris­tian Miller (6-4 and 244) are listed as lineback­ers in Alabama’s 3-4 de­fense, but are first and fore­most pass rush­ers who could be sec­ond- or third-rounders

Clem­son’s de­fen­sive line came into the sea­son with a ton of hype af­ter Wilkins, Bryant and Fer­rell all by­passed the chance to go to the NFL af­ter 2017. Fer­rell, an ex­plo­sive pass rusher, has the most NFL up­side.

The 315-pound Wilkins, a four-year starter who has played both end and tackle, has im­proved as a pass rusher which bodes well for him go­ing in the first-round.

“He does look quicker this year,” Miller said.

The 340-pound Lawrence was sus­pended by the NCAA for the play­off af­ter fail­ing a test for per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drugs. The ju­nior has said he does not know how traces of os­tarine showed up in a urine sam­ple and de­nies tak­ing any­thing in­ten­tion­ally. He faces a one-year sus­pen­sion, but seemed likely to be an early en­trant for the draft even be­fore the ban.

The failed drug test could af­fect Lawrence’s draft stock, but his combo of size and quick­ness are rare. The only draw­back, Miller said, is play­ers such as Lawrence are be­com­ing part-timers as NFL of­fense’s play more like col­lege of­fenses.

“Not ev­ery team is go- ing to have a role for him,” Miller said.

Bryant is pro­duc­tive player with good size who projects as a sec­ond- or third-rounder. And Al­bert Hug­gins, a se­nior who stepped in to start for Lawrence in the Cot­ton Bowl, is ath­letic enough to pos­si­bly be a late-rounder.

Other Clem­son play­ers who Miller graded as draftable: Of­fen­sive tackle Mitch Hy­att; de­fen­sive back Mark Fields; line­backer Ken­dall Joseph; and re­ceiver Hunter Ren­frow.

Alabama’s other draftable play­ers, ac­cord­ing to Miller: Run­ning back Damien Har­ris, cen­ter Ross Pier­schbacher; guard Lester Cot­ton; tight end Hale Hent­ges; run­ning back Josh Ja­cobs.

RICHARD SHIRO AP

Clem­son’s Clelin Fer­rell is part of a de­fen­sive line that lived up to pre­sea­son hype in help­ing the Tigers reach the na­tional championship game. An ex­plo­sive pass rusher, Fer­rell has the most NFL up­side.

BUTCH DILL AP

Ci­tadel quar­ter­back Bran­don Rainey is stopped by Alabama de­fen­sive line­man Quin­nen Wil­liams, who en­ters Mon­day’s play­off fi­nal not only look­ing for a na­tional championship but also to so­lid­ify his stand­ing as the po­ten­tial first over­all NFL draft pick.

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