SAN JOSE -- Clelin Ferrell wasn't randomly given No. 99 at Clemson. It was chosen, then proudly worn in homage to his favorite pass rusher of all time.
It's a man the Bay Area knows well.
That’s right: Aldon Smith.
The University of Missouri product had an unreal start to his NFL career, with 42 sacks in his first three seasons with the 49ers. Then it went supernova, destroyed by off-the-field issues, suspensions and run-ins with the law. Smith hasn’t played NFL football since an abbreviated 2015 campaign with the Raiders, battling well-documented issues with substances of abuse.
Ferrell knows that Smith has his demons. Ferrell also knows that few pass rushers were better than Smith at his best.
“I know his career didn’t pan out the way a lot of people wanted, but (he’s) the reason I wear No. 99,” Ferrell said Saturday during College Football National Championship media day at SAP Center. “I feel like I could be … and I don't know if anything’s over with [Smith's career] -- that’s still in the works -- but I feel like I can be what he should've been and where he should be in his career right now.
“I know he has had some setbacks, and I always pray that he'll return to the level he was. I always looked up to him and his game."
Ferrell has the talent to play at an Smith-like level. He has ideal size at 6-foot-4, 265 pounds. He also has ideal speed, athleticism and length, but he isn’t just a workout warrior. He has steadily produced for Clemson, with 27 sacks over three seasons heading into Monday’s national championship game against Alabama at Levi’s Stadium, where Smith briefly played. Ferrell has 21 sacks in the last two years, far more than Smith had in two years as a collegian.
Ferrell is a better run defender than many think, something he’d like you to know before stereotyping him as a situational pass rusher.
Ferrell ranks high among college football’s edge rushers -- he won the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation’s best defensive end -- and he should be a top-10 pick if he declares for the 2019 NFL draft. He could be a Raiders target as high as No. 4, or if the Silver and Black trade back a smidge to acquire more picks.
He would fill a pressing need rushing off the edge and setting it in the run game -- two traits lacking in the 2018 Raiders defensive front.
“He has a great future,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “He’s long, athletic and has great speed. He has instincts and some real natural talent, but also has character and work ethic and the fortitude to out-compete and fight and be a great leader. He has great humility to him. All those things translate to the next level and will help him transition to the NFL. He’ll be very prepared for what’s in front of him.”
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Ferrell hasn’t formally decided whether to turn pro, but he’s expected to at some point after Monday’s game. The redshirt junior could’ve done so last year, but he returned to school, then dominated the 2018 season, with 11.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss. He was named a first-team All-American for the second consecutive year, and he has accomplished almost everything at the amateur level.
He still didn’t want to tip his hand just yet, and swears he can tune out all the draft talk while focusing on what could be his last game at Clemson.
“I was blessed to be in a position (last year) where my name was involved in draft talk, but I can't control all of that,” Ferrell said. “It’s such a long process from now to making a decision and through the draft. I’m not really thinking about it, because so much can happen between then and now. I’ll make a decision at the end of the season.
"I just focus on what’s in front of me, and that’s the national championship game. That’s why I came to Clemson, to win a title. I owe that to the team and the program to remain 100 percent focused on that.”