TAMPA, Fla. -- Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware approached his designated podium for media day with white earbuds in and quietly took a seat. He pulled his earbuds out and stared straight ahead without a trace of emotion, which was odd considering Boulware has served as his team’s emotional leader for two years running.
The barrage of questions began, about stopping Alabama, getting a chance at revenge, slowing down QB Jalen Hurts. Boulware answered with one cliché after another, and it all started to feel as if Boulware had been replaced with somebody else.
Gone was the swashbuckling, no-cares-in-the-world, I’ll-say-as-I-please Boulware. In his place sat the politically correct Boulware, the one coach Dabo Swinney gave a good talking-to after Boulware earlier in the week defended teammate Christian Wilkins' inappropriately grabbing an Ohio State player in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl.
“Coach Swinney addressed it,” Boulware said. “We’re moving on, focused on Alabama.”
A follow-up came two questions later. Did Swinney specifically speak to Boulware? Without blinking, Boulware repeated, “Coach Swinney addressed it. We’re moving on, focused on Alabama.”
Swinney said what he discussed was “between me and the team. It’s not what we do. It’s not what we’re about. He was trying to be funny, and his remarks were inappropriate.”
That Boulware is being reined in two days before the biggest game of the season qualifies as a newsworthy moment. Clemson has not taken on the personality of its stoic, steady quarterback, Deshaun Watson. Nor has it taken on the personality of fun-loving, aw-shucks Dabo Swinney.
It has taken on the personality of Boulware, a little wild, a little reckless and completely unafraid of what the outside world thinks. With Boulware much quieter, will that impact the way Clemson comes out against Alabama on Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T?
Certainly Swinney had to address Boulware's comments, made earlier this week during Clemson’s on-campus media day. Boulware shrugged off what Wilkins did to Ohio State running back Curtis Samuel as no big deal, intimating they were tactics Clemson defensive players have used throughout the season. He called critics “losers with no friends” who were only trying to divert attention from Clemson's 31-0 victory.
Those comments went viral, drawing a response from Samuel himself while threatening to create a distraction that Swinney did not need to deal with headed into the national championship game.
“Ben is a bull in a china shop, and he answered it like a bull in a china shop,” Swinney said. “It’s unacceptable, and he apologized to his teammates and to me. He knows who we are. That's not what we're about. We don't teach that kind of stuff. We play the game with great passion and will to win, but it was inappropriate. It’s just not what we do.”
Yet there is video proving otherwise. To be sure, every player on the Clemson sideline has been warned to cut out the extracurriculars in the title game. But at the same time, the last thing Clemson would ever want is a muzzled Boulware taking the field.
It is almost unimaginable to envision how Clemson would look or even play with a calmer, gentler Boulware.
“I definitely don’t feel like we’d have that same attitude,” defensive end Clelin Ferrell said. “You have to have guys on defense that have that diff type of mindset, that dog in them. That’s what he has. He’s that intense guy. He’s very vocal.”
Boulware's teammates thrive when they hear him shouting or knocking helmets with someone or bumping heads with defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
“I wouldn’t say everything goes through him, but a lot of things go through Ben -- just his leadership, his attitude and his love for the game," cornerback Cordrea Tankersley said. "Who wouldn’t want to be around somebody like that?”
Added Wilkins: “One of the best teammates I’ve ever had.”
These are universal statements among Boulware's teammates. It is undeniable that Boulware makes this version of Clemson what it is and who it is. Swinney has to toe a very fine line between making sure Boulware understands where his comments crossed a line while also letting Boulware be who he naturally is.
For two years now, we have seen Clemson play with a hard edge, taking umbrage with rankings or underdog status or any perceived slight. Its players have been known to speak confidently (sometimes boastfully), whether it's cornerback Mackensie Alexander a year ago or Jadar Johnson and Boulware this year.
Something about making a bold statement and then backing it up on the field brings out the best in the Tigers. That counts double for Boulware. However Boulware goes, Clemson generally follows.
With that in mind, Ferrell goes back to a moment in the offseason. Every year, Swinney puts up what he calls a vision board. Every player on the team writes down his expectations and what he thinks his role will be on the team.
Boulware wrote one word: lead.
A chastened Boulware can’t forget that.