CLEMSON, S.C. — Try to freeze the moment. Frame it. Screenshot this point in time for Trevor Lawrence.
Forget about the national championship, the instant superstar status, a 2019 Heisman Trophy just about handed to him already. The world changed in an instant for Clemson’s quarterback. So much so that the toast of the Tigers — and college football— is sometimes so blissfully unaware what he has become that it’s, well, charming.
Ask yourself: Who was the last true freshman quarterback who had convinced folks he could play in the NFL right now. There may still be a few disbelievers, but Lawrence has sure as heck has started the conversation.
In the offseason ESPN’s Mel Kiper gave Lawrence a glowing draft grade — “clear cut No. 1” pick! — if Lawrence had been eligible for this year’s NFL Draft.
We all know Kiper has been known to spout hyperbole in the past, but that matters less than Lawrence’s reaction: Who’s Mel Kiper?
“Is he the guy that does all the mock drafts?” Lawrence asked.
Yes, Trevor, he is.
“BEFORE, I WAS PRETTY WELL KNOWN. NOW, WHEN I GO ANYWHERE, IT’S AN EVENT.” Trevor Lawrence
For the record, Lawrence wants nothing to do with the NFL talk. But … if it wasn’t for NFL rules that require football players to wait three years out of high school to declare, Lawrence would likely be a pro right now.
That sort of talk has been quashed early by Lawrence himself, who doesn’t think he could handle the NFL at this point. That’s what makes him so pleasantly vulnerable.
There is angst, but a lot of it has to do with going solo this year. Lawrence is moving into his own apartment as a sophomore after spending last season in the freshman dorms with a roommate.
“I think it’s kind of scary for any teenager to think about being an actual adult on your own,” Lawrence said. “I’ve gone from getting on campus to living in the freshman dorm where everything is taken care of for more. Now [I’m] off campus, finding somewhere to live, paying rent, learning how to function on [my] own.”
This is the guy who led the Tigers to the first 15-0 season by any team in 121 years? Well, yes.
Lawrence revels in the Clemson Cocoon — a sort of safe, nurturing, academic and social bubble that surrounds the city that sits two hours from Atlanta but miles from the real world for Lawrence.
“Obviously, the level we can play at, I don’t think anyone is there right now,” he said. “Regardless of that, it’s beautiful, first of all. The people you meet, the people you’re around, it’s just different. Spiritually, if that’s what you’re looking for …”
The whirlwind has been significant. Five games into his freshman season, Lawrence was starting. Shortly after that, Clemson’s quarterback had an inkling the Tigers could win it all.
“Probably around my third start … NC State,” Lawrence said. “From that game, personally and for the team, we really got the ball rolling.”
Then on a cool Northern California night in the College Football Playoff National Championship, Lawrence capped what might be the best season ever by a true freshman quarterback.
In handing Nick Saban his worst loss in 14 years — and certainly his worst at Alabama — Lawrence threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns. A 19-year-old who skipped his final semester of high school schooled the greatest coach of a generation.
One dynasty was dinged. Another one may have been born. A rock star emerged.
“Everything we wanted to do, we were able to do,” Lawrence said of that night.
Yes, something changed radically that night. You just wouldn’t know it speaking to the shaggy-haired native of Knoxville, Tennessee, this offseason.
Two days after beating Alabama, a night after a cross-country flight from California, Lawrence was up early for his business statistics class.
The fact there was next to no reaction when he entered the room made Lawrence love Clemson that much more.
“I don’t really like me getting all the attention in class,” he said.
Attention? Strap yourself in, kid. There’s going to be plenty of it soon. The Heisman hype hasn’t really hit yet. It’s been 33 years since a true freshman quarterback won a national title game he started and finished.
Lawrence simply put together one of the best seasons in the history of the game by a true freshman quarterback — almost 3,300 yards passing and 30 touchdowns. He saved the best for last with six touchdowns and no interceptions in the two College Football Playoff games.
And his career is just getting started.
Lawrence is trying to hold on to why he came to Clemson. Everybody’s friendly. His classes are no larger than 30 students. He can pop down to the Yolk Asian Kitchen on Tiger Blvd. for a meat bowl and not be bothered. Most of the time.
“I guess just being on this platform it’s a lot bigger than it was before,” Lawrence admitted. “Before, I was pretty well known. Now, when I go anywhere, it’s an event.
“Class isn’t bad. Usually people don’t stop me on campus. Other students are fine. It’s when you get around town, you see all the fans and you try to go eat somewhere. I can’t really hide.”
The football field will continue to be Lawrence’s sanctuary. It’s where he beat out senior Kelly Bryant in an (at times) uncomfortable battle for the starting job.
While the two were still sharing time, Bryant played the last six series of the season’s closest game, a 28-26 win at Texas A&M.
“Without him, I still think I could have gotten the job done, but definitely he played great,” said Lawrence, who still exchanges texts with Bryant. “If we don’t win that game, we probably don’t go to the national championship.”
Lawrence’s right arm, an absolute hose, won out. His 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame projects more than confidence. It screams NFL potential, which is a place Lawrence simply doesn’t want to be at this point in his career.
“That sounds good,” Lawrence said, “just write that.”
There is still a “what if” aspect to Lawrence’s talent. All of it starts with one the juiciest ongoing storylines of this decade — the assumption Lawrence has the goods to play in the NFL right now.
The founder of the Pacific Pro Football — a new league debuting in 2020 — wants to “make an employment offer [and] professionalize” Lawrence right away. That founder is Don Yee, whom you likely know as Tom Brady’s agent.
The second incarnation of the XFL is also starting in 2020.
We’re already beginning to see references to “Tanking For Trevor” despite the fact that the quarterback won’t be available until the 2021 NFL Draft.
“I KNOW, PERSONALLY, IF I WOULD HAVE BEEN ABLE TO LEAVE [FOR THE NFL], I WOULD NOT BE READY.” Trevor Lawrence
One economist estimates Lawrence will lose 11 percent of potential career earnings by having to wait an additional two years for the NFL.
“This is not a knock on Trevor,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “I don’t personally think there is any freshman quarterback who can go to that league and play. It is different. The windows are tiny. It’s a grown man’s league. You gotta be ready for it. You could take the best quarterback in the world, and show me a rookie that went into that league and did really well.”
Smart speaks from experience. Two years ago, his true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm led Georgia to the CFP National Championship, a game UGA lost to Alabama.
Fromm threw for 2,615 yards and 24 touchdowns after enrolling early as an 18-year-old. But few, if any, immediately projected him as an NFL starter. For one, Fromm was also surrounded by future NFL tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
“To be in the national championship game with a true freshman quarterback is pretty incredible, but to go and beat Alabama is remarkable what Trevor was able to do,” Smart said.
Perhaps the last time this was such a big issue for a true freshman skill player was Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson in 2004. Peterson ran for 1,925 yards that year at age 19, prompting men-among-boys comparisons similar to Herschel Walker at Georgia.
Two years earlier, Maurice Clarett ran for 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns in his one and only college season at Ohio State. Clarett sued the NFL in September 2003 seeking a roll back of the league’s eligibility rule. Clarett eventually lost and drifted into obscurity. He was ruled ineligible his sophomore season for lying to the NCAA and never played again.
But Clarett wasn’t a quarterback, and most of the freshmen quarterbacks from the past you might think could have played in the NFL right away weren’t Lawrence.
John Elway threw 96 passes in his freshman year (1979) at Stanford. That same year, Dan Marino threw for almost 1,700 yards at Pittsburgh but had almost as many interceptions (nine) as touchdowns (10).
Ben Roethlisberger (Bowling Green), Colt McCoy (Texas), Sam Bradford (Oklahoma), Andrew Luck (Stanford), Marcus Mariota (Oregon), Jameis Winston (Florida State) and Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M) all redshirted their first year on campus.
Vince Young as a freshman? Not even close. More picks than touchdown passes for Texas his freshman year despite rushing for almost 1,000 yards.
Perhaps the best Lawrence comps are USC’s Matt Barkley in 2009 and UCLA’s Josh Rosen in 2015. Barkley was the first true freshman to start for a preseason top five team since Michigan’s Rick Leach in 1975. He threw for 2,735 yards to go with 15 TDs and 14 interceptions. It’s almost forgotten that, four years ago, Rosen threw for 3,669 yards and 23 touchdowns (11 picks). That UCLA team went 8-5. Neither Barkley nor Rosen won a national championship.
Tua Tagovailoa won a title as a freshman at Alabama (2017) before he started a game (2018), the year Lawrence won the first head-to-head battle.
Lawrence has developed a nice rhythm with fellow sophomore Justyn Ross, who broke out in the CFP. Veteran wideout Tee Higgins also returns. Considering Clemson in relation to a down ACC, another undefeated season is a fair expectation.
There is also Lawrence’s little-known streak of 169 passes — including 11 for touchdowns — without an interception going into this season.
“The season is so long, it’s hard to stop and kind of marinate and think about what you’d done,” Lawrence said. “Coach [Dabo] Swinney does a great job of kind of reminding us not to get complacent but take a step back and see where we’re at. Encourage us like we’re not done yet.”
The thought has crept into Lawrence’s mind: Given that Clemson is the best program in the country at the moment, his presumed three years on campus all could result in national championships.
That was the “worst” case scenario for Swinney when Bryant transferred. Without Kelly, Clemson’s coach theoretically was going to have Lawrence to go against Alabama for the next three seasons.
That’s not the worst thing in the world. It’s likely the Tide and the Tigers will be 1-2 again in some order to start the season. Just don’t come at Lawrence with that NFL stuff.
“I know, personally, if I would have been able to leave [for the NFL], I would not be ready for all the things that would be thrown at me at that level,” he said. “It’s a lot of stuff that people don’t see and don’t realize.”
Lawrence just wants to freeze the moment as best he can.
Sure, he owns this town and a place in Clemson history, but what about paying the rent, putting a shopping list together, cleaning the new apartment?
“Right now, I’m sitting here going into my sophomore year,” Lawrence said. “It’s gone by so fast. I don’t want to speed anything up anymore.”
Sources from: CBS Sports