Clemson University

7 heroes of Clemson’s national championship season

‘This team was special from Day One,’ Dabo says

Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney reacts after the Tigers defeated Alabama for the national championship.
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Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney reacts after the Tigers defeated Alabama for the national championship.

Clemson earned its second national championship in the past three years in impressive fashion as the Tigers pounded Alabama 44-16 in Santa Clara, Calif.

The Tigers dominated their opponents for much of the season, including outscoring Notre Dame and Alabama by a combined score of 77-19 in the College Football Playoff.

Here are seven heroes from Clemson’s 2018-19 national championship season:

Christian Wilkins

The heart and soul of Clemson’s team, Wilkins was not only an outstanding player but was also the team leader. Wilkins finished his senior season with 15 tackles for loss, six sacks and a pair of rushing touchdowns. He also displayed his leadership throughout the year, including taking freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence out for a meal the week leading up to Lawrence’s first career start.

Trevor Lawrence

Speaking of Lawrence, the freshman played more like an NFL veteran than a player who was in high school a year ago. Clemson won every game that Lawrence started and was healthy enough to finish by at least 20 points. The Georgia native was at his best in the College Football Playoff, completing 47 of 71 passes (66 percent) for 674 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions.

Justyn Ross

Lawrence’s favorite target in the postseason was freshman receiver Justyn Ross. The Alabama native did not start a game in 2018 but still led the Tigers in receiving yards with 1,000. Clemson couldn’t keep Ross off the field late in the season, and the 6-foot-4 receiver exploded with 12 catches for 301 receiving yards and three touchdowns in two College Football Playoff games.

Travis Etienne

The ACC Player of the Year was arguably the best running back in the nation in 2018, finishing with 1,658 rushing yards and 24 rushing touchdowns while averaging 8.1 yards per carry. Etienne was an unstoppable force at times during the season, including the Syracuse game when Lawrence was injured in the first half. The entire stadium knew that Clemson was going to try to ride Etienne to a victory against Syracuse and the Orange couldn’t stop him.

Clelin Ferrell

The All-American and ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Ferrell not only had a remarkable junior season but he also set Clemson up for future success. The Virginia native led the Tigers with 19.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks in 2018. And he also spent plenty of time working with Clemson’s young defensive ends, including Xavier Thomas, both during practice and during down time.

Isaiah Simmons

One of the biggest question marks entering the 2018 season was ‘Would Clemson be able to replace star linebacker Dorian O’Daniel?’ Enter redshirt sophomore Isaiah Simmons, who led the Tigers with 89 tackles during his first season as Clemson’s starting Nickel/SAM. Simmons is one of the best athletes on Clemson’s team, and he really played well the second half of the year as he was a key defensive piece in Clemson’s national title run.

Robbie Caldwell

The majority of pundits picked Alabama to beat Clemson in the national title game, and perhaps the biggest reason was that they didn’t have faith in Clemson’s offensive line blocking Alabama’s defensive front. But Clemson offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell had the Tigers ready to play as Clemson more than held its own. The Tigers did not allow a sack in the national title game as Lawrence picked apart Alabama’s defense. Mitch Hyatt, John Simpson and the rest of Clemson’s o-line had perhaps its best game of the year on the biggest stage.