Aggressive and old school, Clemson's Ben Boulware is the player you love to hate

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware is the guy you love to hate -- unless he's on your team. He's the aggressive, outspoken, old-school football player whose attitude rubs off on Clemson's defense even as his plays and words rub some other people the wrong way.

Boulware runs down the list of questionable plays he's been involved with during 2016.

There was the neck grab of Louisville's Lamar Jackson at the bottom of a pile. There was the suplex of Syracuse's Dontae Strickland. There was the near clothesline of Boston College's Patrick Towles that was called targeting but got overturned. There was the highly questionable late-hit call on Pitt's Dontez Ford.

Boulware knows the label some people attach to him: Dirty player. To put it bluntly, he says, that label "pisses" him off.

"I think if [opposing players] are soft and they're not real football players, they might think I'm a dirty player," Boulware said. "So maybe [they mind], I don't know. I think the guys who play the game the right way at a high level respect the way I play. I think that depends on the players."

Make no mistake: Boulware is the heart of Clemson's defense, which has helped the Tigers reach the College Football Playoff for the second straight season. Boulware's teammates love him.

Fittingly, Boulware won the Jack Lambert Award from the Touchdown Club of Columbus, Ohio, as the nation's best linebacker. He fits that Lambert mold with an old-school edge rarely seen in college football in 2016. He's the guy who says he supports football becoming safer while also acknowledging he plays through possible concussions (well, sort of).

The questionable plays have reached the point where Boulware thinks officials are looking to make calls against him.

"That does get kind of annoying," he said. "I definitely think they've got their eye out for me a little more than others. ... I think the way I play is just different sometimes and they've never seen it before and they're like, 'Gosh, do I throw a flag?' I don't know if they're just a little trigger happy sometimes to make the game more safe, which I do appreciate. I think it depends on the referee and what they've heard."

Boulware's reputation reached a new level Oct. 1 against Louisville when he kept hold of Jackson's neck while on the ground after a play ended. Jackson reacted furiously that a flag wasn't thrown.

"I was waiting on the call," Jackson said after the game. "I wasn't frustrated; they were just turning my neck. ... I wasn't used to that. That's football."

Boulware said he texted Jackson the next day and "smoothed it all over" by assuring him he wasn't choking him. Far worse things happen under piles that people don't see, Boulware said.

"That's just the media and TV and Twitter trying to paint that picture because I had my arm on him," he said. "But I wasn't squeezing or choking him. Really, I was just holding him down. I think he knows that."

In November, Boulware lifted a Syracuse player off his feet and suplexed him onto his head while making a tackle, drawing a 15-yard penalty. The play may have looked weird, but Boulware said he's not changing who he is.

"That's football to me," he said. "I'm not going to change how I tackle somebody. If I have the opportunity to suplex somebody again, I promise you I will do it every day of the week. That's just how I've been brought up."

Said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney: "The Lamar Jackson play, [Boulware] doesn't know that he's not getting up. He's just holding on, grabbing him. The suplex is really where [the reputation] came from. Same thing there -- whistle's not blown, he's behind the guy and the guy's got the goal line right in front of him and he's fighting. [Boulware] couldn't get a hold of him and he grabs him and throws him back. He's an intense, aggressive guy. ... I just think he's made a lot of plays and plays the game the right way."

There's at least one player Boulware couldn't suplex: Pittsburgh running back James Conner. Boulware said Conner hit him so hard that it broke Boulware's face mask down the middle.

"I'm pretty sure he gave me a concussion on that one hit," Boulware said.

Boulware said he stayed in the game because "that's my job. I've got to suck it up, and I'm sure he felt some of my hits, too. That's a big boy, and it definitely wasn't fun for me. I think I had 11 to 12 tackles in that game and every one of those tackles hurt."

This is Boulware's mentality. Staying in the game is a source of pride. He said he's not worried about his long-term health by playing through a hit like that, even though football is trying to change this exact mentality by encouraging players to sit out with concussion-like symptoms.

"No, I just say it rang my bell a little bit," Boulware said. "It's football. You ring your bell just about every single game. But it's football. It's all good up here [pointing to his head], I'm pretty sure. I hope so. It rang my bell a little more than usual that game, but it's good."

When asked if he reports concussion-like symptoms to coaches or trainers, Boulware said he does. Then he quickly said he might have been exaggerating by calling the Pitt play a concussion.

"It wasn't a concussion," he said. "I hit my head a little bit. I've had concussions before in high school and I was like dead. So I know what a concussion feels like and that wasn't it, but it was pretty daggone close, I promise you that."

He's a different breed, this Ben Boulware.

Ben Boulware really likes jumping onto his teammates. USATSI

This is the guy who at ACC Media Days last July wore capri pants, a paisley pattern shirt he found at a floral-themed shop in Savannah, Georgia, a pink tie and no socks.

This is the guy who hasn't shaved since Jan. 12 -- the day after Clemson lost to Alabama for the national title. He now sports a beard that he said makes him look Amish. "Every time I eat, it's all in my beard, and I have to like wipe it out," Boulware said. "My girlfriend is like literally cleaning my face like I'm a child."

There's no rhyme or reason to the beard except, "I'm just lazy," he said. "I don't feel like shaving it. It's gone so long now that I kind of like it. I'll probably keep it after the season look homeless."

This is the guy who called South Carolina the "little brother" in the state after Clemson's dominating 56-7 win. He compared the Gamecocks' five-year winning streak over Clemson that ended in 2014 to a mother telling her child to let the little brother win at PlayStation for a little bit.

"They don't really win a lot. They've never been that good," Boulware said. "We kind of let them feel, 'OK, this is what it feels like to win.' We got tired of that and snapped those controllers back."

This is the guy who won't take a play off at practice even when the coaches want to keep him healthy. This is the guy Swinney believes will find his way onto an NFL roster just like former Clemson wide receiver Adam Humphries did with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers despite being undersized.

"I think Ben will get drafted, but he's not going to wow anybody with his physique or how long his arms are or how tall he is and all that mess," Swinney said. "But when you turn the film on, you'll be wow. And when he gets in between the lines wherever he goes, he'll be wow. Because he's a football player and they come in all shapes and sizes."

Let's be honest: There aren't many Boulwares out there. There aren't many players with his energy and passion. There aren't many players involved in so many questionable plays, either.

Does it bother Boulware that he has a reputation of going over the line?

"I might have brought it on myself a little bit because people don't see it that often," he said. "I didn't intend for it to be that way, labeled as a dirty player. Because I don't think I'm a dirty player at all. I think I just play it different and people haven't been acclimated to it yet."

Love him or hate him, there is only one Ben Boulware.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Jon Solomon is CBS Sports's national college football writer. A former Alabama resident, he now lives in Maryland and also writes extensively on NCAA topics. Jon previously worked at The Birmingham News,... Full Bio

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