CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — There is little doubt the nation’s best defensive player will take the field at the Fiesta Bowl when No 2 Ohio State faces No. 3 Clemson for a trip to the national championship game.
The only debate for some is which sideline he’s on.
Buckeyes defensive end Chase Young and Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons have won plenty of awards and shown the skills that will make them high NFL draft choices, perhaps as soon as this spring. The two juniors are key cogs for the nation’s top two overall defenses, with Clemson leading the way.
Young led Ohio State (13-0, No. 2 CFP) and the nation with 16.5 sacks this season on the way to winning the Hendricks and Bednarik awards. The 6-5, 265-pounder from Maryland was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
Young had four sacks in Ohio State’s first of two wins over Wisconsin, then had three in a critical victory against Penn State after missing the previous two games due to suspension.
Young has done all this despite opponents using extra bodies to get in his way.
“”Teams put a lot more focus on chipping Chase, putting a guard on Chase, doubling Chase,” said Buckeyes freshman defensive end Zach Harrison.
It hasn’t really work as Young had 21 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles despite missing those two November games.
“When a play has to be made, we make it, get off the field for the offense,” Young said. “I think that’s the best thing we can do.”
Clemson’s Simmons has a similar style for the Tigers (13-0, No. 3 CFP), although no offense is ever sure if he will line up in the secondary or closer to the line of scrimmage.
“What he brings to the table is unmatched,” Tigers safety K’Von Wallace said. “I feel like he’s changing the style of sports today.”
Simmons, the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder from Kansas, describes himself as a Swiss Army knife, able to fit and excel wherever Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables needs him.
He leads Clemson with 93 tackles, but his versatility and coverage skills show up elsewhere on the stat sheet: He also tops the team with seven sacks and seven passes broken up this season.
His play won him the Butkus award along with the Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year.
Venables said Simmons was a skinny prospect who never stopped moving and developed himself through hard work and studying the game.
“I’ve said it once, I’ve said it 100 times, he plays so hard,” Venables said. “His endurance is like nothing I’ve ever been around. That’s his best attribute.”
He has a knack, Venables added, for knowing the right gap to go through when he’s called on to rush the passer. And he is lightning fast.
Simmons got his first taste of starting last season in the Tigers’ undefeated run to the national title.
With the front four of last year’s defense off to the NFL, Simmons was called to take a larger leadership role this year. He considered the NFL last winter before deciding he had more to learn before leaving Clemson.
Simmons and Young are found in many mock drafts for the upcoming NFL draft. First, though, the Dec. 28 showdown in the playoff semifinals.
Simmons said he does not see the game as his chance to prove he’s every bit the star as Young, just the next opportunity for the Tigers to keep their landmark run going.
Young “is a great player, a very dominant player who affects the game,” Simmons said. “But I just go out there and play my game. I don’t really worry about things like that.”
AP Sports Writer Mitch Stacy contributed to this report.