PETE IACOBELLI, AP Sports Writer
CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney had simple instructions for 340-pound defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence when he first used him on offense: “Go that way.”
Lawrence, the agile freshman who has bedeviled offensive lines, has done the same to defensive opponents as part of the Tigers’ “Jumbo Package.” That’s when they line up the 6-foot-5 Lawrence and 6-4, 310-pound defensive end Christian Wilkins in the backfield for goal line or short yardage situations.
You should see more than just the Tigers get bigger in the backfield during the College Football Playoff. Alabama has used Nagurski Award-winning defensive end Jonathan Allen (6-3, 291 pounds) and freshman linebacker Mack Wilson as goal line blockers.
Wilson, at 6-2, 242 pounds, caught a TD pass out of a goal line set in the Tide’s blowout of Kent State.
“If they can create an advantage, I think it’s something that we need to do,” Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said.
No. 1 Alabama (13-0; No. 1 CFP) will face No. 4 Washington (12-1; No. 4 CFP) in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve while No. 2 Ohio State (11-1; No. 3 CFP) takes on No. 3 Clemson (12-1; No. 2 CFP) in the Fiesta Bowl. The winners will play for the national championship in Tampa, Florida on Jan. 9.
Saban has relied on defensive linemen to grade the road for quite some time with the Tide. Terrance “Mount” Cody was a nimble, 340-pounder who blew out rushing defenders in Alabama’s backfield at times during his two seasons there.
Clemson has a connection to perhaps the most famous defensive lineman in the backfield in ex-Tiger William “Refrigerator” Perry. The “Fridge” captivated the football world when the 300-pounder rumbled for a Chicago touchdown against the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football in 1985.
Perry scored a TD in that season’s Super Bowl for the championship winning Bears.
Swinney said it’s the athleticism of Wilkins and Lawrence that screamed offense to him. Both are fast, light on their feet and can get leverage needed to open holes on offense.
Clemson’s Wilkins, a sophomore from Springfield, Massachusetts, has been making offensive plays since he arrived. Last season, he caught a stunning 31-yard pass on a fake punt that swung the momentum to the Tigers early on in a 37-17 national semifinal win against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl — Clemson’s first-ever defensive lineman to catch a pass.
He followed that up this season, becoming the first D-lineman with a TD catch on offense for the Tigers with his 1-yard grab against Troy in September.
Wilkins had a 10-yard run off another fake punt to keep a drive going against North Carolina State a month later.
Teammates have called him “Slash” — former Pittsburgh Steeler do-it-all standout Kordell Stewart’s nickname — because he’s been so versatile on both side of the ball.
Lawrence is right alongside Wilkins in every way. Swinney likes to say the freshman “came out of the box that way” and it was his off-the-charts movement that quickly landed him in the backfield.
“If it’s to help my team, I’m down for it,” Lawrence said.
He’s watched Wilkins’ production and has said jokingly he’d like a similar chance. How are Lawrence’s pass-catching hands? “Perfect,” he said.
Swinney won’t tip off future use for his “Jumbo” duo, only that he’ll continue calling the scheme if needed.
“The guys like going in there on offense,” Swinney said. “We’ve been effective with it, except for one time, so we’ll keep on going with it.”
The one time came in Clemson’s lone loss of the season, 43-42, against Pitt last month. The Tigers faced fourth-and-one from the Panthers’ 35 with a minute left. Instead of punting, Swinney called for “Jumbo” to ice the game. Running back Wayne Gallman, though, was stopped short and Pitt drove for Chris Blewitt’s 48-yard field goal for the upset win.
Swinney didn’t regret the choice and co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said the “heavy set” the Tigers were in had gone five-for-five before Pitt stopped it.
Allen, the centerpiece of Alabama’s defense, had wanted to help on offense the past two years only to be blocked by coordinator Lane Kiffin.
The appeal, Allen said, is the challenge of being on the other side, dominating defenders the same way he’s done to offensive opponents.
“It’s all just about brute strength,” Allen said. “Once you get on the goal line, it’s mano a mano. So you just put some dogs in there and see what happens.”
AP Sports Writer John Zenor from Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Associated Press Writer Jeffrey Collins from Clemson contributed to this report.
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