NEW ORLEANS — Clemson safety Tanner Muse has been through so much now that he had to laugh when a reporter recently asked him if he had been listening to predictions of which player LSU quarterback Joe Burrow would try to attack in the national title game.
“What are they saying?” Muse said. “Is it me? Are they coming after me? Is that what you’re getting at?”
Maybe so. Burrow undoubtedly will come after everyone in Clemson’s secondary, as the Heisman Trophy winner directs the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense. LSU has scorched defenses for an average of 48.9 points per game. Burrow has thrown for an SEC-record 5,208 yards and 55 touchdowns, and he’ll undoubtedly throw a few deep balls that Muse will have to deal with Monday.
Pardon Muse — a senior from Belmont, North Carolina, who starred in both football and baseball at South Point High — if he’s not intimidated.
“Alabama last year?” Muse mused. “Everyone thought that was the best team of the decade — or of the entire universe. So we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Clemson destroyed Alabama 44-16 a year ago to win the national championship. That made for the second national title the Tigers have won in the past three years. Clemson has also won 29 games in a row and boasts a quarterback in Trevor Lawrence who has never lost a college game.
Yet Clemson will be a six-point underdog to LSU on Monday night, in a Superdome that will be full of Tigers fans of both stripes, but particularly from the school whose Baton Rouge campus is only 80 miles away.
Muse relishes the thought. The first-team All-ACC selection this season has played in so many huge games already. He partially blocked a punt against Alabama in the Tigers’ 2016 championship. He also chased down Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins in the first quarter of the national semifinal on Dec. 28, saving a key touchdown that would have put the Buckeyes up 17-0.
Said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables: “Tanner has been an incredible leader, and he’s just had a fabulous year. … He’s had more extra-effort plays than anybody we’ve had, and the (Dobbins tackle) might have been the play of the year. Just so proud of him. He is in that film room every single day and what a great example he is for what it looks like to lead.”
Muse’s parents, Kevin and Shannon, rented a van to drive the 700 miles from Belmont to New Orleans for this game, along with about a dozen family and friends. Included in that group will be Tanner’s younger brother Nick, a tight end at South Carolina who will be on crutches because he tore his ACL just a couple of games before he and Tanner would have faced off on the field.
Tanner and Nick Muse are only 26 months apart in age and are best friends. The two boys grew up in Belmont, about 15 miles west of Charlotte, playing in local rec leagues in football, baseball and basketball. Nick would sometimes play “up” so they could be teammates.
“Tanner is calm,” said Shannon Muse, his mother. “Kind. Laid-back. Funny. But when he gets on a football field, he turns into a different person.”
Muse said he saw some tape not long ago of him playing as a redshirt freshman in a national title game for the first time. He said he looked a little “scared” and “skittish.” Not anymore.
As a redshirt senior, Muse is about to play his last collegiate football game Monday night. He sounded a little like a character in a Journey song Saturday when he said that his story is about “a small-town kid from Belmont” who is about to walk into the “lion’s den” one more time as a collegian.
Muse’s NFL future is unclear. He is projected at the moment to be a mid- to late-round pick in April, or possibly go undrafted, depending on how the lead-up to the draft goes. Playing well against the vaunted LSU offense would help him.
“A lot of people don’t think I can cover and things like that,” Muse said. “So I’m excited just to show them: ‘Hey, I’m here. And I can do this.’ “
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