Clemson's Trevor Lawrence checks all the boxes as a generational NFL star

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence on Sept. 21, 2019. Credit: AP/Richard Shiro

Halfway through his weekly Zoom media session Tuesday, Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney was amused to find himself fielding questions from New York-based media outlets for the second week in a row, and he couldn’t resist making note of it.

"Man, we’re popular in New York these days," Swinney said with a laugh.

Given the plight of the 0-6 Jets and the 1-6 Giants, the only thing NFL fans in New York have to look forward to is the race to the bottom for the No. 1 draft pick and the opportunity to take Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Quarterbacks often go No. 1 because of the importance of the position, but the buzz generated by Lawrence suggests that he is viewed by many as a generational talent.

Like everyone else, ESPN draft expert Todd McShay has the 6-6, 208-pound Lawrence lodged firmly in the No. 1 spot of his mock draft with a 97 grade. Plenty of hot young quarterbacks have reached the NFL in recent years, including Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes, the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and the Texans’ Deshaun Watson, who preceded Lawrence at Clemson by a couple of years, and all of them combine passing and running ability but with less size than Lawrence.

In McShay’s view, Lawrence is the most talented quarterback to hit the NFL since Andrew Luck in 2012. "I think he’s rare," McShay said. "Anyone can see the size, the mobility when he takes off running and the arm strength. He’s able to make a lot of throws that you need to at the next level. In their offense, there’s not as many middle-of-the-field anticipation throws as you’d like to see, but when he has to, he does a really good job with that. The thing I love about him, too, is that he’s matured so much since he was a freshman."

Lawrence arrived at Clemson in 2018 as the top quarterback recruit in the country after leading his high school team in Cartersville, Georgia, to 41 straight wins and two state titles. In the process, he broke all the Georgia state records for passing yards and touchdown passes that had been set by Watson. Clemson had an established quarterback in Kelly Bryant, but Lawrence quickly supplanted him and led the Tigers to an undefeated season, capped by a 44-16 rout of Alabama in the national championship game.

In his sophomore season, Lawrence led Clemson back to the championship game, but the Tigers were pummeled by LSU, 42-25, and Lawrence was held to 234 yards passing and was outplayed by LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, who threw for 465 yards and five touchdowns. That is the one blip on Lawrence’s record, but he grew from it and his improvement this season has been obvious while leading Clemson to a 6-0 record this season, including a 47-21 win over Syracuse on Saturday in which Lawrence threw the first pick-six of his collegiate career and only his second interception of the season.

McShay was part of the ESPN broadcast crew for Clemson’s season opener against Wake Forest, and he loved what he saw. "The first two or three drives of that game, he wasn’t a different quarterback, but you could see how easy it was coming to him mentally because he has the game experience and he’s mature as a football player," McShay said. "The way he maneuvered the offense without having to do as much looking over to the sideline, it was complete control and you could see how quickly he was processing from his primary read to his secondary read.

"It’s very obvious to me. He’s made big strides. He’s always been a phenom physically, but I think the mental part is really starting to click in this year and he’s taken it to a whole other level."

Ask Swinney to explain the qualities Lawrence will bring to whichever NFL franchise is lucky to draft him, and it sounds as if he’s reading off a shopping list of assets any general manager would want.

"As far as Trevor as a quarterback prospect, I don’t know what you would want in a quarterback that he doesn’t possess," Swinney said. "If you want size, you got it. You want a guy that can run, you got it. You want a guy that has a great football IQ, you got it. You want a guy that’s a great leader, you got it. You want a guy that loves to work, loves to prepare, the same guy every day, you got it.

"You want a guy that’s humble, you got it. You want a guy that makes everybody else better, doesn’t ask anything more from anybody than he’s willing to give, you got it. You want a guy who’s accurate, you got it. You want a guy that’s got toughness and isn’t afraid to go get a first down, you got it. So I don’t know what you could want in a quarterback that he doesn’t possess."

If there is one thing about Lawrence that leaps off the page for all those who have tracked his career, it’s his growth as a person on and off the field over his three seasons at Clemson. In his first two seasons, he was more reserved in terms of how he handled the spotlight that accompanies his leadership role with the Tigers.

But that changed last summer when Lawrence chose to embrace his position as the face of college football. First, he spoke out on behalf of a group known as "We Are United" that was made up of players advocating to play college football this season despite concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Then he used his social media platform to speak out on behalf of social justice causes. It underlined his growth as a leader.

"Obviously, the football thing is something we all do," Lawrence said of his role advocating to play this season. "It’s something we love and that we care about a lot. When it’s threatened to take it away from you, you feel you’ve got to do something, and obviously, we have a voice. I felt like we could make an impact in that situation.

"Then all the social justice things in the spring and in the summer, for me, it was more about knowing my teammates and my friends and people I care about, that they knew that I care about them and that it’s important to me. Things that they struggle with — even though I don’t necessarily — it’s important to me. I don’t want to just turn a blind eye. So the biggest thing to me was just showing support, showing that I care about them and sacrificing a little bit. That’s not a lot to send out a tweet or say something, but it’s still something to show that I’m supporting them."

Lawrence slowly has figured out how to handle his burgeoning celebrity over his time at Clemson. As much as he values his privacy, he understands that, not only are fans looking at him, but it’s important to set an example for his teammates.

It’s fair to say he has grown with an eye toward the NFL. Although he hasn’t made any formal announcement, it’s clear he expects to enter the NFL Draft after his junior season. Just as Watson did before him, Lawrence is on track to obtain his undergraduate degree in three years.

Wherever he winds up in the NFL, Lawrence knows he must adjust to taking over a losing situation and help to rebuild it. Leadership will be a critical factor.

"I think the way I operate and the way I try to live my life and treat other people is just to treat people how I want to be treated," Lawrence said. "I never want to come off as I think I’m someone who’s more important than anyone else. That’s something I’ve really been adamant on making sure people around me know that everyone is the same. That’s really important to me.

"Everybody is on the same playing field. From there, it builds a level of respect between teammates, and you can just grow."

Although Lawrence arrived at Clemson two years after Watson left for the NFL in 2016, the two have a relationship. Lawrence cited the example Watson set on and off the field as one he wants to emulate.

"I think he’s a good example of someone that’s done things the right way," Lawrence said. "He’s made a positive name for himself more than just on the field, but off the field, too. I really respect that. I just happened to kind of follow his footsteps, it seems."

Swinney didn’t know if he ever would have another quarterback who would compare to Watson as a player and as a person, but then, Lawrence came along. Comparing the two of them, Swinney said they are very similar except that Lawrence is three inches taller.

"They both can make every throw," Swinney said. "Trevor might have a little bigger arm, but you’re splitting hairs. They’re both creative, both great leaders, both carry themselves with a humble spirit. I didn’t know if I would ever coach another guy like Deshaun that just loved to prepare and was so focused on being great that he didn’t get distracted by other things."

Because of his size, Lawrence’s mobility is not as obvious as that of Watson, Mahomes or Jackson. But Swinney recalled the quarterback draw play on which Lawrence ran for a 67-yard touchdown against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl last season as an example of what he can do.

A week ago, Lawrence threw for more than 400 yards and five first-half touchdowns while playing just one third-quarter series before retiring in what became a 73-7 victory over Georgia Tech. There was one play that stood out when the righthanded Lawrence rolled out to his left but then was able to flip his hips back to the right to get the leverage needed to throw a perfect touchdown pass to a receiver who was running right to left across the back of the end zone.

"Trevor doesn’t get credit for his athleticism, but there’s nothing Deshaun can do athletically, running, that Trevor can’t do," Swinney said. "There’s not any differences to me other than their size and that Trevor’s got long hair and Deshaun has short hair. They’re great human beings, both of them."

That’s the package that some lucky team is going to get in Lawrence, but he is concentrating on winning another national title at Clemson and trying not to look ahead to his NFL career. "I’m trying to maximize my time here," Lawrence said. "I know it’s fleeting, so I’m really trying to make the most out of it. I feel like I can’t really do that if my head is somewhere else. There will be a lot of things to figure out down the road, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it."

Trevor Lawrence at Clemson

Year ... Comp. ... Att. Comp. % ... Yards ... Avg. ... TD ... Int. ... Rating

2020 ... 108 ... 148 ... 73.0 ... 1,544 ... 10.4 ... 15 ... 1 ... 192.7

2019 ... 268 ... 407 ... 65.8 ... 3,665 ... 9.0 ... 36 ... 8 ... 166.7

2018 ... 259 ... 397 ... 65.2 ... 3,280 ... 8.3 ... 30 ... 4 ... 157.6

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