TALKIN’ CFP : JANUARY 11
By Leo Haggerty

Yes, I was able to convince the NCAA Media Credentials Committee on Friday afternoon to issue me and four of our It’s Sports Magazine/Knights Sports Productions crew Game Week credentials.  A big thank you to Communications Coordinator Lauren Lanier for making that happen.

That allowed us to attend all media events leading up to and following Clemson’s heart-stopping 35-31 win.  That was the Tigers first National Championship in 35 years when CU beat Nebraska to cap a perfect 12-0 season in the Orange Bowl.

Below is the conversations I had “up close and personal” with the coaches and players during Game Week.  Enjoy.

MEDIA DAY

ALABAMA

DC Jeremy Pruitt
LB Reuben Foster
OL Cam Robinson
DL Jonathan Allen

LH : Normally you want to stop the run.  If you do that, now you make Clemson throw it. Is that a good thing for you?

JP : I would feel a lot better if they wouldn’t run the ball. I mean, if you know they are not going to run it, it’s a lot easier as a play caller. Yeah, you’ve got to make them one-dimensional.

Have you played anybody like Clemson all year with what they do offensively with the spread and everything?

JP : Well, you could probably take Ole Miss and Auburn and Tennessee, the combine some of it. And then they have their own twist with it, too. But it’s kind of the same type of family, you know.

LH : How good is #4?

JP : Oh, he’s real good. Real good.

LH : Alabama is the gold standard in college football. This is an expectation for you guys to be here. Is that why you came to Alabama?

RF : Yeah, it’s a standard that we got to play with and a standard we got to face. It is an expectation, like you said, and that’s the only reason I came here.

LH : You’re kind of in no man’s land Monday night. You either got to chase No. 4 or cover receivers. That’s a big job, isn’t it?

RF : That’s a huge job, man, just to be running all over the place and make sure you get everybody in the right scheme, the right defense, it’s a tremendous job just to do that though.

LH : Right now, Alabama is the gold standard in college football. This is the expectation to be here. Is that why you went to Alabama?

CR : It’s definitely part of the reason why you come to Alabama, just because of the winning tradition. What Coach Saban has done with the program. I mean, it’s appealing when you’re a recruit. Yeah, it factored into me making the decision to come here.

LH : When you watch the Clemson-Ohio State film, did the Clemson defense do anything different that allowed them to dominate Ohio State?

CR : I don’t know if they did anything different. They just played well. They came out and they played well that night. They were the better team.

LH : When you’re looking at Monday night, what’s going through your mind?

CR : I’m just ready to play, man. Just we’ve been preparing for it. We’ve been preparing for it all week, all year for this moment. When you get to this point, you’re just ready to come out and compete. You’re ready to come out and play.

LH : Jonathan, right now, Alabama is the gold standard in college football. This is the expectation, to be here. Is that why you came to Alabama?

JA : Of course. I came to Alabama to be a part of greatness and win national championships.

LH : When you watched the Ohio State-Clemson film and you look at the Clemson offensive line, did they do anything differently than anybody else you’ve seen?

JA : Just a bully mentality. Real physical at the point of attack. But as a defensive player, we love that opportunity and we’re going to be ready for it.

LH : You’re going to be chasing #4 a whole long night. When you get there, it’s going to be happy time?

JA : Oh, of course. It’s always fun to got a little pass rush in.

CLEMSON

Co-OC Tony Elliott
Co-OC Jeff Scott
DC Brent Venebles
LB Ben Boulware
OL Jay Guillermo
QB Deshaun Watson

LH : I talked with Coach Ronnie DuPre at West Ashley High School and he said, when you were at James Island, you were a really good basketball player.  Why didn’t you stay with that?

TE : You know, I was a decent basketball player. Funny story is I had no ambition to play basketball. I happened to be playing in a rec. The varsity team had just got done practicing. He saw me playing pickup ball. He encouraged me to come out. From my sophomore year on, that’s why I played basketball.  Really my first love has always been baseball. Growing up in California, early in my life, baseball was all I knew. Then football, then third sport was always basketball.

LH : You hate to say a loss is good, but after the Pitt game, it looks like you guys have been on a mission.

TE : Coach Swinney said it best. He said prosperity is an awful teacher. I think based off the belief system that he has and I have, we understand that adversity builds character.  Now, we are designed to be prosperous. We want to live in prosperity. But we always need a little bit of adversity to ground us and humble us to make sure we stay disciplined so we can receive the prosperity.  I think the guys took it to heart. They took the challenge. They had an opportunity to respond. Everybody in the country was looking to see how they responded. They were playing for a championship, the Atlantic Division championship the week after, and they responded the right way.

LH : With Alabama on defense, it looks like the second guy in goes right for the ball. Is that what’s happening?

TE : I think so. Those guys have a tremendous amount of pride in dominating, not just dominating, but also scoring on defense. So what you’re seeing is those guys are tackling the football. Everybody’s in a scramble to pick up the ball.  I think they’ve even coined it as the Six Club. Everybody on defense wants to be a part of that club. They’re all trying to get into the end zone.  You have to applaud them for those guys. It’s hard enough to motivate guys to play hard every single down. To take pride in scoring on defense, you got to commend those coaches on defense for what they’ve done this year.

LH : Against Ohio State, it’s like you ran a fake toss and let Watson run behind Leggett like a trick play.  Did you use Leggett as more of a blocker?

JS : He was. That shows a lot of improvement in his game. That was really an area where we needed Jordan to improve from last year to this year. We knew what he could do catching the ball, running routes, the passing game. Really for us to take the next level offensively would be for him to improve as a blocker.  He’s definitely done that this year. Each game, you go into it kind of with a game plan. Once the game gets started, you start seeing what they’re doing defensively, it can change your game plan. We found something that was working for us and decided to stick with it. Jordan did a great job with that.

LH : You never want to say a loss is good. Since Pittsburgh, your focus has been crystal and on one thing. Did Pitt help you get refocused?

JS : It did. I don’t like using the word ‘refocus’ because I really don’t feel like we lost the Pitt game because our guys weren’t focused. Offensively we had one of our best games of the year outside of two costly turnovers in the red zone, then that third-and-one, fourth-and-one at the end of the game. Really it was probably our best throwing and catching game of the year with over 500 yards passing.  I feel like our guys all year long have played at a consistent level. But I do think that loss definitely reminded the guys that nothing’s guaranteed. Sometimes you go through the season, you’re working hard, all that. You just assume that this was going to happen. I think it was a good reminder to our guys that, Hey, we don’t have another Mulligan. Everybody is talking about wanting to expand the playoff and all that. I feel like we’ve been in the playoff ever since that Pitt game, week 11.

LH : I talked to the Alabama defensive coordinator. Normally you want to stop the run. He said he’d love to see you guys run.  They don’t want to see you pass the ball. How effective is that passing game?

JS : Well, it’s definitely important. For us, we want to be balanced. Whenever we rush for 200 and pass for 200, I think we’re undefeated in the history of the school. We want to be balanced in what we’re doing.  Defenses have to make decisions. Offensively we want to control the game with our tempo, with our speed, different things that we’re doing. At the same time we want to figure out what the defense wants to take away. We’re going to adjust off of that.  We feel very fortunate that we have players at each position that we can run the ball when they’re trying to take away the pass or throw the ball when they’re trying to take away the run. With a guy like Deshaun, who makes great decisions, we call some of those run-pass options when we give him that decision, post snap he’s making it right, if you will.  I think it’s definitely a cat-and-mouse game. I know they’ll have some new schemes and new things for us this year, just like we will for them.

LH : Brent, when you look at college football today, great defenses hold a team under 20. You throw a goose egg on Urban Meyer and Ohio State. How proud are you of that accomplishment?

BV : Real proud. I got a perspective. We’re not beating our chest thinking that we’re the steel curtain. But at the same time, we need to recognize our players for their effort, their work, for their toughness, for their execution.  We really complemented each other well in that game. We were on the right side of it. We were on the right side of it all night long and they just couldn’t quite get it right.  So you play them another ten times, you’re probably not going to get a goose egg, you know, but you never know. But, again, I don’t want to also downplay our players’ performance.  And that’s what, ultimately, you want. The best teams you’ve been around are teams that just continue to get better as the year has gone on, and we really feel like our guys are hitting their peak right now.

LH : Can you compare Alabama to anybody you’ve played?

BV : No, just because I think they have a completeness that we haven’t seen. They’ve got a great deal of experience on defense as well, and then the best collection of skill that we’ve seen on offense and the best offensive tackle we’ve seen this year.  Just I don’t really need to go on and praise them like they deserve, but I think everybody understands that they got a great football team and they’ve got as much confidence, if not more than anybody in the country, and they’re playing in an aggressive manner, a physical manner, and they’ve been there, done that.  Like I said, they’ve been the standard in college football that we all aspire to be, and we’re building towards that.

LH : The Ohio State game was won in the trenches. Do you expect the same thing with Alabama?

BB : Obviously, each game starts in the trenches. There’s a lot of weight on our D-line’s shoulders. There’s a lot of weight on their O-line’s shoulders. This is going to be a very physical game. Just watching the tape from last year, I mean, it was grueling. It was pounding every single snap. So we know this game, more than others, will be won in the trenches. I think our D-line did a great job against Ohio State. But Alabama’s a different animal. They, obviously, present their challenges, they present different kind of talent, but we’re ready for it.

LH : Have you ever been penalized before this year for tackling too hard?

BB : Multiple times. A lot this year. Example of the Syracuse, Boston College, I mean you name it.

LH : Has the WWE approached you to join them after your college career is over?

BB : No. I saw where — no, after the Syracuse tackle, which I thought was a textbook, I thought it was a pretty awesome tackle. I thought it was awesome. Some people probably thought I was trying to, like, injury somebody or hurt them, because I don’t know, whatever. But Ric Flair posted something on Facebook, like he, like, tagged me in that Syracuse video, which is pretty cool. Nature Boy Ric Flair, so it was pretty sweet.

LH : Does Alabama remind you of anybody you played offensively?

BB : They, obviously, I mean, they have their similarities to V-Tech, to Ohio State, but they also have their variations. I think the talent is at a new level and their Alabama, so they, obviously, bring some of the best talent in the country. But I mean schematically, obviously Jalen Hurts can do a lot of things with the ball. So similar to Ohio State, but obviously, not exactly identical. So, they present a challenge. And they have — there’s similarities that we saw on tape to other teams. Obviously, not going to spill the beans right here, we have our game plan, things we want to do to slow them down. But they definitely have some similarities to other teams.

LH : At the ACC Championship game in Orlando, Dabo gets off the bus first, Deshaun comes in last, there’s not a sound. First thing I thought of, this is business trip, not a fun trip. Since Pittsburgh, you guys have been really crystal clear on what you want to do.  Correct?

BB : Yes, sir. Same mentality. Obviously, with the bowl game last week, guys are going to be a little more laid back and enjoy that whole experience. But you also got to find that balance. And I think we did a great job that last week and enjoying Phoenix, enjoying everything that comes along with being in a bowl game. But also when it’s time to work, it’s time to work. I think the leadership on our team and Coach Swinney did a great job of finding that balance of giving us our off time, letting us enjoy every place we visit, but when it’s comes a day or two from the game, we’re locked in, focused on business. So I think we took care of the whole bowl game experience last week, and it’s just straight business. Our guys realize that, we’re aware of that, we respect everything that Alabama’s done, and we realize that this is not a bowl game, this is a National Championship, it’s a whole different animal, so you obviously want to have fun and enjoy your teammates at the hotels, but if you find that balance, you get up early before you come here and watch film, realize there’s a lot of things that come along with it. But you got to stick to your roots. You got to stick to watching film and preparing the same way you have been all season and I think that mentality and that mindset has kind of allowed us to play at a high level and be very consistent and successful all year.

LH : When will it sink in for you that you went down the hill at Death Valley for the last time?

BB : Probably after the game. I don’t want to put too much thought in that and let that whole thing overwhelm me or let me get in my emotions about it. I’m completely focused on Alabama, completely focused on going out there and playing a great game and helping my team in any way to get out with a W. Probably on the plane ride home I might get a little emotional. So that time will come. I’ll worry about that after the game.

LH : Sometime early in the game, 93 in red is going to get in a zero technique. Have you, in your head, decided on a the plan?

JG : Just trust my technique. I mean, he might be the best defensive player in college football. None of that matters on Monday because he’s not been the best defensive player on Monday night, January 9, 2017 quite yet.

It all just — trust your technique. I feel like I’ve prepared well. We’ve all prepared well. Just really being able to go out and play as good as I can. Just giving it everything I’ve got. If I can do that, live with whatever results happen.  Obviously he’s a really, really good football player. Once again, maybe the best defensive player in the country. Having the opportunity to be able to step on the field with him is an honor, for one thing. But you know, just really being able to hopefully go in and battle with him is going to be great.

LH : It looks like #4 is on a mission to prove he’s the best player in college football. Do you agree with that?

JG : I agree. Personally, obviously, I think that he is the best player in college football, and just especially look at the way he’s finished. That’s our whole mantra has been finishing, finishing, finishing.  Yeah, obviously he’s on a mission. A trophy doesn’t define him but he’s a special one, I’ll tell you that.

LH : After the Pittsburgh game, you couldn’t afford to lose another game.  Did that put you in playoff mode from that point on?

DW: Yeah, you could say that. The Pittsburgh game was kind of a reality check for us. For us to be able to turn the page and make sure that we are focusing on the little things and not getting complacent and ever since then we had a different mind-set of each and every week is a championship game, and we have to approach it each and every week that way.

LH : If you win Monday night no one is going to accuse you of backing into the National Championship.  You will have beaten Alabama and Ohio State and you’re going to be No. 1. What will that mean?

DW : It will be great. We understand that as a program but I guess the outside don’t understand that and until we do that and beat the champs, then it’s going to be the same result, same story. It will be nice to finish out the deal this week and just say we done it.

LH : A lot of the media say that Clemson is not an elite program.  Over the past six years, you’ve won at least 10 games.  Does that bother you?

DW : I don’t know, that’s a good question. We understand what we’re about and what we do and all the results that we’ve gotten over the past four or five years, and we just kind of focus on what we do and we let the outside people talk what they want to talk about.

COACHES PREGAME PRESS CONFERENCE

LH : Coach Swinney, when we spoke during this year, you talked about the way the bye week and the scheduling was last year. You came in a tired football team. The bye week and the scheduling this year helped you a little better?

DS : There’s no question. I really did not like how we finished last year. I appreciate we found a way to win in November, but we were straining to get to the finish line, if you will. We played 10 straight. We were a very top-heavy team. We didn’t have a very good rotation defensively, seniors and then freshmen. The bye week was better. We were not healthy, either, down the stretch. We had a couple guys that didn’t even practice for this game last year, Mackensie and Shaq, and both tried to play. Shaq was able to play and played pretty good, and Mackensie didn’t make it.  But we’re a healthier team, but more importantly, we’ve got more functional football players. We’re competitively built differently from a depth standpoint than we were last year. I think that’s always the position you want to be in as a coach because it just brings a different edge to your meetings, your practice and everything.  Last year we didn’t quite have that, and this year we do. I like where we are as a team, and hopefully we can play our best four quarters tomorrow night.

CHAMPIONS PRESS CONFERENCE

CLEMSON

HC Dabo Swinney
Offensive MVP Deshaun Watson
Defensive MVP Ben Boulware

LH : For both players, Ben, we’ll start with you first. I asked both of you Saturday if it was becoming tiresome that people didn’t consider Clemson an elite program, and you both basically said that it’s elite for us. Is it mission accomplished now with a big exclamation point after it?

BB : Yeah, that’s something we really didn’t focus on too much. Like all season, especially in this bowl season, we controlled what we had to control. Like I said last night, we controlled our preparation, our attitude throughout the entire game, how hard we worked, and we knew that the output would take care of itself. So whether we were in the media or the outside world’s elite label, we don’t put too much focus on that. We just go about our business, and doing that won us a National Championship.

DW : Yeah, I agree with that. We don’t focus on what the outside people are saying. We just focus on Clemson. We always just believe in each other, believe in what we can do and what we’re going to do, and we just stay with that. We don’t listen to all the media or the naysayers or anything like that because they don’t control the game. They don’t control the outcome. We just focus on what we can control, and that’s going out there and performing and being the best we can be.

LH : Coach, Renfrow’s catch, everybody is going to remember, but how big was his tackle on the fumble that kept it to 17 instead of 21 because you talked Saturday, you can’t let them score on defense.

DS : Yeah, you know, I felt like they’ve beaten everybody, they’ve scored on special teams and defense. NOT. They created a new name. That was a big goal of ours. That’s a hidden play in the game. That play, the pooch punt by Deshaun on I think it was 4th-and-2 there, and just we thought about it, contemplated going for it, but they were up 10. We just could not get field position. I just felt like, let’s try to flip the field here, get a stop, and kind of reload with good field position, and that’s what happened.  That play and the tackle by Renfrow were just kind of two plays mixed in a bunch of plays, but man, those were monsters. That was one of the big keys for us. We were four for four in the red zone, four touchdowns, I believe, and they had three points. Don’t ever ask me about turnovers again. I can’t even say – if you’d have told me we were going to have two turnovers against Alabama, we’d get beat. But our defense rose up. They got three points off of the two turnovers.  But that tackle was huge. Huge.