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Alabama’s defense faces big test in Clemson’s mobile Deshaun Watson

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson looks to pass during

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson looks to pass during Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma. Credit: AP / Joe Skipper

PHOENIX — Is Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson the antidote for a dominating Alabama defense that is loaded with NFL first-round draft talent on the defensive line? The answer to that question likely will determine the outcome of the second College Football Playoff championship game, which matches the No. 1 Tigers (14-0) against the No. 2 Crimson Tide (13-1) in a game of strength versus strength on Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium.

It’s no secret among college football theorists that Alabama’s weakness — if there is such a thing — is defending mobile quarterbacks. Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel dazzled against the Crimson Tide in 2012 and Auburn’s Nick Marshall beat Alabama in 2013. The Crimson Tide lost last season’s Sugar Bowl CFP semifinal to an Ohio State team that combined the run-pass ability of quarterback Cardale Jones with the running of Ezekiel Elliott. Ole Miss, which runs a spread offense similar to Clemson’s, gave Alabama its only loss this season.

“I think mobile quarterbacks are a problem for every defense, not just us,” said Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who recently accepted Georgia’s head-coaching job. “We’re maybe better at stopping the traditional-style offenses. When you face a mobile quarterback, most people are giving up more yards. You’re hoping to get some turnovers and some less explosive plays.”

Two years ago, Smart was involved in trying to recruit Watson for Alabama, so he’s very familiar with the physical and mental skills the Clemson sophomore brings to the table. Watson passed for 3,699 yards and 31 touchdowns and rushed for 1,032 yards and 12 TDs.

“This kid is a really great athlete,” Smart said. “He can scramble and throw. They open formations up. It’s harder to defend. They go up-tempo. He makes great decisions with the ball. He’s very disciplined. He’s grown a lot as a quarterback over the last few years.”

Alabama will try to contain Watson’s versatility by pressuring him with a defensive line that includes three first-round prospects in Jonathan Allen (12 sacks), A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed. That group pressured Michigan State so heavily in a 38-0 Cotton Bowl CFP semifinal win that quarterback Connor Cook was caught on TV saying, “They’re everywhere.”

Allen said Alabama’s defenders are well aware of the perception of their weakness against mobile quarterbacks. “I’ve been hearing that since I’ve been here,” Allen said. “At first, we definitely struggled with it, but over the last couple of years, we’ve done a good job of playing it . . . We don’t feel like it’s a weakness.”

Stopping Clemson’s running game, which also features Wayne Gallman (1,482 yards, 12 TDs), is Alabama’s top priority. Clemson guard Eric Mac Lain suggested Alabama might struggle because it hasn’t faced a team with two 1,000-yard rushers like Gallman and Watson, but he admitted the Crimson Tide’s depth and the number of different personnel packages available for every situation will test the Tigers.

“Michigan State tried to run exactly what Alabama is built for stopping, and that’s the power,” MacLain said. “You’ve got to get out on the edges and try to run a little bit, try and get those big boys changing direction. But their defense obviously is second to none. What they’ve been able to accomplish this year is pretty special. We’re excited for the challenge.”

As for the player wearing the bull’s-eye for Alabama’s defense, Watson said, “My whole package is going to be key. I’ve just got to do my part and continue to be me and don’t try to be no superhero. I’m confident in what I do. I feel like I’m one of the best players in the country. We’re 14-0 for a reason.”

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