When Clemson’s season was truly on the line against Ohio State, there was backup safety Nolan Turner clinching victory with his game-sealing interception in the end zone. When the Buckeyes were threatening to blow the game open in the first half, there was linebacker Chad Smith coming up big. When an explosive play was needed on the final drive, it was wide receiver Amari Rodgers coming through.
For all the talk about prized quarterback Trevor Lawrence, Butkus Award-winning linebacker Isaiah Simmons and all the star skill-position players on offense, Clemson doesn’t reach the championship game without those performances from its unsung supporting cast. If Turner doesn’t rebound from giving up the go-ahead touchdown to make the game-sealing pick. If Rodgers, the team’s No. 3 receiver, doesn’t shake off a quiet evening to make a 38-yard catch on the 94-yard scoring drive to set the Tigers up in Buckeyes territory. If Smith doesn’t produce a game-high 12 tackles, eight of them the solo variety.
“He’s the epitome of what our program is all about,” coach Dabo Swinney said on a conference call on Monday as preparations began for the Jan. 13 national championship game between No. 1 LSU and No. 3 Clemson in New Orleans.
Swinney was talking about Smith, but he could’ve been referring to Rodgers and Turner, too. They didn’t let frustration impact performance. They rebounded in huge moments, coming through when they were needed the most.
Smith and Rodgers were both highly regarded, four-star recruits. Turner was not. He was unranked. His best offer was from the UAB. But after Clemson unexpectedly lost four defensive backs to the NFL in January 2016, it extended Turner a scholarship offer. Swinney had previously offered him a preferred walk-on spot — Swinney was close to Turner’s since-deceased father, Kevin — and after closely reviewing his tape, felt he belonged.
He certainly belonged Saturday. With Ohio State driving for the game-winning score in the final minute, Turner picked off Justin Fields after wide receiver Chris Olave cut off his route, a clutch play that sent Clemson to its fourth national championship game in five years.
“Not many people when you look at Nolan Turner would figure he’s one of the key players on the No. 1 defense in the country,” Smith said. “You know, he’s a smart guy. He’s a great athlete. He’s a guy that plays with a chip on his shoulder. He wasn’t highly recruited out of high school, so he brings that edge to practice all the time.”
Smith, meanwhile, had never started a game until this season. On Saturday night, he was the Defensive MVP of the Fiesta Bowl. He received two degrees and could’ve gone elsewhere as a graduate transfer, but stayed at Clemson. This year, he had 75 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. He saved his best for Ohio State, recording a career-high 12 stops, helping force the Buckeyes into three first-half field goals when they could’ve ran and hid.
“It was pretty special,” Smith said. “I mean, all this hard work and all this perseverance and commitment all came to fruition that night, being able to be recognized on a stage like that was just truly an honor.”
As much as Clemson has been known for the Deshaun Watsons and Christian Wilkinses and Lawrences in this run over the past five years, it has also been about overlooked and under-recruited guys who have developed. The best example was wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, who went from a walk-on to a household name in South Carolina after he caught the game-winning touchdown pass in the 2016 title game. Turner, Rodgers and Smith joined that club against Ohio State.
There’s no telling who will shine for Clemson in the national championship game on Jan. 13.