The Tigers won the Playoff while one of their best players sat out due to a failed drug test.
Star Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence missed Clemson’s Playoff wins over Notre Dame and Alabama. Lawrence, offensive lineman Zach Giella, and tight end Braden Galloway tested positive for the same performance-enhancing drug, ostarine.
The three suspended players were allowed travel to the game in Santa Clara, California, and are ineligible to play while appeals of their suspensions (which would be slated to run a year if upheld) remain pending. The school is still investigating.
Galloway was part of a tight end-by-committee group behind starter Milan Richard. Giella was not on the two-deep and played sparingly. But Lawrence was a crucial part of Clemson’s defense, creating chaos and taking up space in the middle of the line who’s since announced his exit for the NFL.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency explains what ostarine is:
Ostarine is the trademarked name for a Selective Androgen Receptor Modulator (SARM) that is not approved for human use or consumption in the U.S., or in any other country. In recent years, WADA has reported an increasing number of positive tests involving SARMs, and athletes who use these substances most likely obtain them through black market channels.
Research has shown that SARMs like ostarine have fewer androgenic properties, meaning they have less influence on the development and balance of male hormones, including testosterone. While they are not yet approved for human use, SARMs are of interest to the medical community because they might be effective at treating different health conditions without resulting in the negative side effects of steroids.
The USADA also says “only illegal” products contain ostarine. It’s on the NCAA’s banned-substances list as an “anabolic agent,” along with other SARMs.
Lawrence has strongly denied intentionally taking the drug, and Clemson expresses belief in him.
He told reporters before the Cotton Bowl:
“I can say I’m not the type of guy to do a selfish act like that. I have too much pride. I love this team and my family too much to even think about putting a substance like that in my body.
“I don’t know where it came from, I don’t know how it got there. I was raised different. If I did do it, I’d own up to it. But all I can say is I honestly don’t know where it comes from or how it got there. There’s nothing I can really do about it.”
His coach, Dabo Swinney, later said the substance could’ve even come from something Clemson itself thought was approved.
“Oh yeah, I mean, there’s a chance that it could come from anything,” Swinney said when asked if it’s possible the players ingested ostarine in a Clemson-issued supplement or were exposed to it in some other way at the school. “They’re going to test everything and look at everything. And that’s the problem. As you really look at this stuff, it could be a contaminant that came from anything, that was something that was cleared and not a problem, and all of a sudden, it becomes there was something.”
After initial positive tests, Lawrence and his teammates had hoped “B samples” would clear them, but those came back positive, too.
The NCAA Drug Testing Program has athletes provide two samples when they’re tested. If the first sample, the “A” sample, comes back positive, then Drug Free Sport (which administers the testing program for the NCAA) notifies the school.
A testing lab then analyzes the “B” sample, and the results of that test are final (though they can be appealed). The double-test is supposed to be a way to weed out false positives that would get non-doping players punished. If both are positive, the rulebook says:
Upon notification of the sample B positive finding, the institution shall be required to declare the student-athlete ineligible, and the institution will be obligated to withhold the student-athlete from all intercollegiate competition.
Lawrence was part of a dominant Clemson line, but the Tigers were fortunate to have big-time talent behind him.
That whole line (ends Austin Bryant Bryant and Clelin Ferrell, tackles Lawrence and Christian Wilkins) was elite, leading the country’s No. 1 defense by S&P+. Any of those players would’ve been a huge loss, though the Tigers had the depth to beat Alabama anyway.
Senior DT Albert Huggins started in Lawrence’s place, and the former No. 1 recruit in South Carolina played well. Clemson was in quite decent shape.
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.
Clemson might have a plausible argument for how players ended up taking the substance.
From the Post and Courier:
School lawyers might be hedging toward a “poor manufacturing practices” angle in its official presentation to the NCAA, citing the ostarine was part of an NCAA-approved supplement.
And, along that same line, here’s another note on ostarine from the USADA:
Some dietary supplement manufacturers illegally put SARMs like ostarine in their products and sell them as “legal steroids” or “research only” chemicals. Moreover, they may omit ostarine from the label entirely, or use misleading names to confuse consumers. For example, ostarine may also be called enobosarm, MK-2866, or GTx-024.
However, this could raise the question of how many more players might’ve taken such a supplement.
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