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College football fans looking at the Cotton Bowl on Saturday and wondering how 11-point underdog Notre Dame can compete with Clemson might have just found a big reason: failed NCAA drug tests by three of the Tigers, including standout defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney dropped that Christmas Eve bombshell on reporters upon the team’s arrival in Texas on Monday afternoon. Multiple media reports said Lawrence, backup offensive lineman Zach Giella and backup tight end Braden Galloway all failed tests due to the presence of ostarine, a banned substance that is considered a performance-enhancing drug.
Swinney said the players were waiting on results of a “B” sample that should be available Wednesday. While a clean B sample could clear the players, it would be an unlikely result. A source with extensive experience in the NCAA drug-testing realm told Yahoo Sports on Monday that the players’ chances of playing in the Cotton Bowl are “slim and none.”
The source said that if the B sample is positive as expected, reinstatement to play would be dependent upon the players subsequently registering a clean test with the NCAA. That’s a virtual impossibility before kickoff Saturday.
The source told Yahoo that ostarine use has been on the rise lately among athletes and bodybuilders. It is usually taken orally, the source said, via drops under the tongue, to aid in recovery from injury.
Clemson learned about the suspensions from the NCAA on Thursday and Swinney informed the team of them last night, according to a university source.
Part of the strategy behind Swinney speaking publicly about it now is an underlying belief within the program that the players did not intentionally take PEDs, and they wanted to impart an element of institutional skepticism.
“It’s three different guys, three different positions and three different classes,” the university source said. “It’s very random.”
That said, there’s little optimism that the three players will be in uniform against the Fighting Irish.
“We’re going to do everything we can to work through the appeals process,” said the source. “But there’s an assumption that they’re not going to play.”
Clemson officials spent much of the past few days searching for a reason behind the failed tests. They spoke with athletic department nutritionists, its executive chef and sports medicine officials to try and find a link between the three players. Officials tried to find whether the substance could be from something that they’ve eaten, or perhaps a cream they used for rehab.
A Clemson official said only “trace” amounts have been found in the players. “The word trace should be underlined and bolded,” the source said.
The PED tests are different than those for recreational drugs. Small amounts of marijuana, for example, would not trigger a positive test.
“With marijuana, there’s thresholds that can be found, but not above a certain granularity,” the university source said. “[With Ostarine] any level or trace in your blood is a strike as a positive.”
The U.S. Anti-Doping Association describes ostarine thusly:
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. Ostarine is currently being investigated as a way to treat a variety of muscle wasting diseases, such as osteoporosis, cancer, and hypogonadism.
Although Swinney said ostarine can be found in everyday products, USADA literature says the substance is found in “only illegal” products.
Arizona basketball star Allonzo Trier tested positive for ostarine in 2016 and missed half of the 2016-17 season because of it.
Lawrence, a 340-pound junior, has been a three-year force on the defensive line for Clemson. Projected as a high NFL draft pick if he enters the 2019 draft, Lawrence has 10.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss with the Tigers. He’s part of a defense that leads the nation in fewest rushing yards allowed per carry (2.4), ranks second in tackles for loss per game and third in sacks per game.
“Obviously, Dexter is a starter and a very, very significant player on our team,” Swinney said Monday. “Even though [Giella] hasn’t played as much and [Galloway] is a freshman, they’re still missing out on an opportunity that they have worked extremely hard for.”
Without Lawrence clogging up the middle of the line, it could provide an avenue for Notre Dame’s between-the-tackles running game led by senior back Dexter Williams, who has 941 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in eight games this season.
Giella, a junior who has played center and offensive guard, has played 114 snaps this season. Galloway, a freshman, has caught five passes for 52 yards and a touchdown, but hasn’t caught a pass in Clemson’s last seven games.
“From a team standpoint, we have to get our team ready to play football,” Swinney said. “We got to get our team ready to play our best four quarters of the season. That’s our goal. So we have to prepare as if it’s an injury and get the next guy ready. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
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