Albert Huggins has prepared all season like a starter and embraces the opportunity to be one for the Clemson Tigers during the postseason.
Huggins stepped into the role of Clemson’s starting defensive tackle when Dexter Lawrence was ruled out last week for failing a drug test. With Lawrence again out for Monday’s national title game against Alabama, the senior and former Orangeburg-Wilkinson High standout will make his final college start on the sport’s biggest stage.
“I’m out here trying to prove myself to people, trying to open eyes,” Huggins said. “That is the main goal and to win a national championship. It is a great opportunity.
“It is a blessing that I received. I’ve got to take advantage of my opportunity when the door is open and run on through it.”
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Huggins’ stat line against the Fighting Irish won’t jump out at you — one tackle and one quarterback pressure in 45 snaps during the 30-3 win. But on his one tackle, he held up Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book enough for Tanner Muse to force a fumble and give the Tigers early momentum in the game.
Huggins admitted he “left a little food on the table” as far as his performance against Notre Dame and hopes to clean that up in Monday’s national championship game.
Getting a chance to start has been a work in progress for Huggins, who arrived at Clemson as a four-star recruit and the No. 1 ranked player in South Carolina for the Class of 2015. Huggins earned the nickname “The Hulk” for his ability to bench 420 pounds in high school and was a Parade All-American. It was the first time Clemson got the No. 1 recruit in the state since Daquan Bowers in 2008.
Huggins came in as a defensive end but “that didn’t work out too well for me” because of, among other things, his lack of coverage skills. So he was moved to defensive tackle.
The position change wasn’t the problem for Huggins. It was his inconsistent play on the field.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables told reporters last week that coaches didn’t know what kind of effort they would get from Huggins day in and day out.
Still, Huggins never wavered in his ability to play football and credits his teammates and family for encouraging him to stick it out at Clemson rather than transfer.
“I prayed about it. When I committed here, I committed here,” Huggins said. “I believed in coach Swinney and Coach V (Venables) and stuck with it. It is just something about it. I wouldn’t have went here if I didn’t trust them. For me to commit here to just stick it out and see what happens. God has a plan for everyone. If it wasn’t my plan to play, I would have moved on.”
Things have changed for Huggins, especially this year. He came out of spring practice listed as a co-starter with Lawrence on the depth chart.
Huggins has played more than 130 snaps more than last year and set career highs in tackles and tackles for loss.
“A young Albert wouldn’t have been ready for this situation and spotlight,” defensive end Christian Wilkins said. “But to see him mature each and every year a little bit more and earn teammates’ trust has been great. It is fun to watch and see. I knew when his opportunity come to showcase his talent and show what he could do on the field that he would take it and do well.”
Another strong showing might help Clemson to its second national title in three seasons and help Huggins’ NFL draft stock. With teammates Wilkins, Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant expected to go early in the 2019 draft, teams will be taking a look at the 6-foot-3, 315-pound defensive lineman.
“This is a big opportunity. A lot of eyes are going to be watching like they did last game. It makes a difference,” Huggins said. “I’m just trying to take advantage of my opportunities, no matter if it is first quarter, second quarter, fourth quarter. It allows me to play more freely.”