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ARLINGTON, Texas — A letter from the NCAA left three Clemson players “absolutely baffled,” a school official told USA TODAY Sports, when it arrived Thursday.
The message: Standout defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, backup offensive lineman Zach Giella and freshman tight end Braden Galloway’s routine drug tests were positive for what head coach Dabo Swinney described Monday afternoon as a “sliver” of the banned drug ostarine. Their eligibility for Saturday’s College Football Playoff matchup with Notre Dame is in question.
The players thought Swinney was playing a joke on them.
“I’ve had guys fail drug tests before,” Swinney said from AT&T Stadium ahead of Clemson’s first Cotton Bowl practice. “Without a doubt, (they) have not intentionally done anything to jeopardize their opportunity or this team. I want to make that real clear.
“We have no idea how it got there.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said NCAA notified DT Dexter Lawrence, OL Zach Giella & TE Braden Galloway they failed drug tests with sliver of ostarine. Players thought it was a joke at first. More clarity to come with B sample later in week
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) December 24, 2018
Swinney said the test results revealed “a sliver, a trace, a fraction” of a drug he’d never heard of before.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency defines ostarine as selective androgen receptor modulator (SARM) not legal for human use or consumption in any country and most likely obtained through black market channels. Sport governing bodies have banned it because of anabolic steroid-like effects that are considered, with high enough quantity, to enhance performance.
Research into ostarine is exploring its ability to treat muscle-wasting diseases like osteoporosis and cancer forms.
Clemson declined to report the exact numerical measurement of ostarine identified in the players but emphasized it was a trace.
The players and their families are exploring options including legal representation.
What does Clemson do next?
First, Swinney and coaches await results of a B sample test for each player’s ostarine levels. Swinney anticipates hearing those results Wednesday or Thursday ahead of Saturday’s game but said they’re “at the mercy of the process.”
Subsequent appeals could influence next season’s eligibility or a championship appearance, if Clemson advances — but not Saturday’s contest.
Swinney said he’s learned in recent days that roughly 40 athletes have tested positive for ostarine in the last year. Arizona basketball star Allonzo Trier tested positive in 2016 after what he claimed was a drink he didn’t know ostarine had been added to. The NCAA ruled he could return to play once the drug was out of his system.
“It can literally be anything as I’ve come to learn,” Swinney said. “It can come from hair products, it can come from cream, it can come from protein. A product you buy or order online that you think is nothing wrong with. It can be anything.
“So that’s what we’re in the process of dealing with. We’re going to do everything we can if it is in the system. Heck, I don’t know. Who’s to say it is there? That’s what we’re being told. They all will have legal representation.”
Lawrence, Giella and Galloway attended practice Monday afternoon in helmets and jerseys. But Clemson is preparing right now as if they won’t be available Saturday and teammates will need to step up.
Three players including Dexter Lawrence (90) are at practice right now while awaiting next drug test sample result. But team is preparing as if they’ll be unavailable. “Absolutely baffled” is how one Clemson staffer described the players’ reactions to letter pic.twitter.com/AIR0tYQ1o8
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) December 24, 2018
Lawrence’s absence will have the biggest impact on the field. He’s started all 13 games this season — all wins — recording 44 tackles (7.5 for loss), three pass breakups, 1.5 sacks, a fumble recovery, a blocked kick and a rushing touchdown in 467 combined offensive and defensive snaps. The first-team All-ACC defensive tackle has been projected as a first-round talent for the 2019 NFL draft. Clemson’s defense has allowed the fewest yards per play (4.08) in the nation and ranks in fourth in total yards allowed (276.8).
Giella has played 114 snaps in 11 games this season. Galloway has caught five passes for 52 yards and a touchdown in 12 games.
For now, the three wait for the B sample tests results.
“I want to be very clear this is not street drugs,” Swinney said. “This is nothing like that.
“Best to be transparent and honest because I don’t want there to be any speculation at all on what we’re dealing with. That’s exactly what we’re dealing with.”
Follow Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.