Alabama played Clemson last year in the national championship game, but many of the familiar names are gone.
Two-time Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback Deshaun Watson is back for Clemson, and he is joined by one of the best wide receivers in college football. NFL draft picks Mackensie Alexander and Shaq Lawson are gone, but a new slate of superstar players will be featured in the front seven.
Here are five Clemson players Alabama fans should get familiar with before Monday night’s national championship game in Tampa, Fla.
QB Deshaun Watson
Stats: 352-523 for 4,173 yards, 38 TDs, 17 INTs; 144 carries for 586 yards, 8 TDs
Every Alabama fan will remember how electric Watson was in last season’s national championship game. Even though it was in a loss, Watson threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns, and rushed for another 73 yards against one of the best Crimson Tide defenses in history. It was truly an unparalleled performance.
Watson struggled with turnovers this year, but he still deserves to be mentioned among the most electric players in college football. Louisville’s Lamar Jackson easily won the Heisman, with Watson finishing second. For Alabama to win the title, the Crimson Tide will need to find ways to contain Watson’s arm and legs.
LB Ben Boulware
Stats: 121 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 4.0 sacks, 12 QB hurries, 1 INT
It feels as if the senior has been at Clemson forever, and without question, he wants to leave college as a national champion. Boulware was one of the most productive tacklers in the ACC this season and is adept at diagnosing plays and reading opposing offenses from the weak side.
Last year against Alabama, Boulware was limited to 3 tackles. That said, expect Boulware to be involved in every play on Monday in some capacity. If Boulware’s name isn’t called, Clemson’s defense is in trouble.
WR Mike Williams
Stats: 90 catches for 1,267 yards, 10 TDs
Clemson was without Williams last season, and it showed down the stretch. Even though Watson threw for 400 yards in the national title game last year, the Tigers didn’t have a 100-yard receiver. In fact, the longest reception was for 39 yards on a pass to running back Wayne Gallman.
Enter Williams. Scouts rave that Williams could be a first-round pick in this year’s NFL draft. Some have compared him to the legendary Calvin Johnson. After returning from a neck injury, Williams easily asserted himself as the team’s top weapon. There aren’t many players who can match up against Alabama’s vaunted secondary. Williams is one of them.
Nothing can bring Mike Williams down. https://t.co/AW8qmS1BZO
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 27, 2016
DL Carlos Watkins
Stats: 73 tackles, 12.5 TFLs, 10.5 Sacks, 12 QB hurries, 4 pass breakups
Clemson features a superb defensive line, and Watkins is the glue that holds it together. He’s the only upperclassman in the starting lineup and the only senior on the defensive line’s two-deep. In fact, Watkins is one of only two redshirt senior starters for the Tigers, along with center Jay Guillermo. Watkins plays like it, too.
There’s a reason Watkins has been named All-ACC twice. Despite attacking from the defensive tackle position, Watkins leads Clemson with 10.5 sacks. Only Dexter Lawrence has more tackles on the defensive line. Watkins posted a tackle for loss in last year’s title game. This year, he could have more.
RB Wayne Gallman
Stats: 214 carries for 1,087 yards, 16 TDs; 17 catches for 113 yards
Perhaps the biggest regression from Clemson this year was in the running game. Gallman had more than 1,500 rushing yards last season, but was utilized much less in 2016. However, it wasn’t all his fault. It took some time for the Tigers offensive line to build, and calling fewer runs for Watson also meant Gallman’s attempts were more predictable.
But now that Watson has been unleashed in the running game, Gallman has to respond. He posted 85 yards and a touchdown in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. If he can take some pressure off Watson, it opens up the offense tremendously.