Clemson's Trevor Lawrence Has Been on Fast Track to Stardom Since Adolescence

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterJanuary 4, 2019

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) warms up before the NCAA Cotton Bowl semi-final playoff football game against Notre Dame on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/ Jeffrey McWhorter)
B/R

In many ways, this outcome was preordained. Those who witnessed Trevor Lawrence throwing a football at some point over the last five years knew this day would come.

They saw Lawrence break Deshaun Watson's state passing records in his four years at Cartersville High School—a storied high school career in the state of Georgia that takes on new meaning now that he has followed Watson's footsteps at Clemson. They watched him win 41 consecutive games and two state championships, all while blossoming into the No. 1 recruit in America.

And come Monday night, they will see if the 19-year-old is able to do what only three quarterbacks have done in the past four years: conquer mighty Alabama.

While it would be unreasonable to assume a true freshman would be up for such a formidable assignment, especially in the national championship game, what has become clear over the past few months is that this is no ordinary true freshman.

"He's so far and away ahead of every other college quarterback right now," says one NFL scout of Lawrence, who still has two years before he can declare for the NFL draft. "He has elite accuracy and arm strength, he's poised, he manages the game and he wins. ... Maybe the best thing I can say is that I can't find a negative. That and he hasn't really had an elite defense press him. He will next week."

Jeffrey McWhorter/Associated Press

Cartersville's head coach, Joey King, first laid eyes on Lawrence when he was an eighth-grader. Even then, King knew Lawrence was special. He saw a tall, powerful right-hander who was developed beyond his age.

Lawrence grew up a fan of Peyton Manning, hearing about his exploits at Tennessee and watching him excel in the NFL. Not just how he threw, but the way he could manipulate the game's biggest moments to his advantage on the fly. It's why, at Clemson, he wears No. 16, Manning's number at Tennessee.

The comparisons to his idol started coming in his sophomore year of high school. Cam Cameron, who recruited Manning as an assistant coach at Michigan in the early 1990s, told King that Lawrence reminded him of the quarterback he missed out on decades earlier. Only he felt Lawrence was more mobile and even had a slightly better arm.

"I don't put limits on anything when it comes to Trevor," King says. "To say I've been surprised about anything that has happened this year simply wouldn't be true. I expected him to play and do well, and that's what he's done."

During his time at Cartersville, Lawrence amassed 13,902 passing yards and 161 passing touchdowns—both Georgia high school records. As a senior, with the recruiting world curious if the uber-hyped QB could validate all that was being said and written, he threw 41 touchdown passes and only one interception.

Troup County High School in LaGrange, Georgia, was victimized by a handful of those touchdown throws in consecutive years. Before Troup first matched up against Cartersville, head coach Tanner Glisson reached out to a friend on an SEC coaching staff who was recruiting Lawrence.

He knew this staff had watched more tape on the QB than anyone. If someone could help identify a weakness in his game, this was the source. The response he got back ultimately prepared him for the results to follow: Lawrence didn't have a weakness.

"When Trevor throws a ball, you can actually hear it coming," Glisson says. "It makes a different sound. There is just no comparison to anything I've ever seen. He's a once-in-a-generation-type kid."

Glisson coached against Lawrence twice—both in for the Region 5-AAAA title game. Cartersville won both games handily.

"I told our staff that he is not just an NFL first-rounder," Glisson says. "He is going to be the No. 1 overall pick. I said that years ago, and I 100 percent believe it now."

Trevor Lawrence
Trevor LawrenceChuck Burton/Associated Press

In December of 2016, Lawrence verbally committed to Clemson over Georgia. He did so during his junior year largely because he wanted to calm the hysteria surrounding his recruitment.

He had heard enough sales pitches and done enough interviews. While the attention was unavoidable—both locally and nationally—the QB did his part to avoid it as much as he could.

"I'm not really into all the media stuff," Lawrence told Bleacher Report after he committed.

His commitment to Clemson marked the second consecutive season that the Tigers landed a 5-star quarterback, although Lawrence shared no concerns about competing with players who had at least a full year of college experience under their belts.

Since Lawrence arrived in January of 2018, four Clemson quarterbacks have transferred from the program.

Zerrick Cooper and Tucker Israel both announced they were transferring shortly after Lawrence enrolled. In May, 5-star QB Hunter Johnson left after being one of Clemson's most coveted recruits in 2017.

During the season, Kelly Bryant departed after head coach Dabo Swinney named Lawrence the full-time starter, even though Bryant had led to Clemson to a 4-0 start. It only took that long for the freshman to fully unseat the team's playoff starter from a year ago. And yet, no one seemed all that surprised.

"We wouldn't have been fair to our team as coaches if we didn't give him that opportunity," co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott says. "At the end of the day, that was a defining moment for our team and our offense. They galvanized."

Trevor Lawrence
Trevor LawrenceTom Pennington/Getty Images

During the regular season, Lawrence threw 24 touchdown passes, despite sharing snaps the first month, and only four interceptions. He was brilliant at times, perhaps raw at others. But not raw in a sense most expect from a freshman quarterback. His was the kind of raw that makes one wonder just what he will look years from now, when his body and abilities are fully formed.

"He's just so poised," Swinney says. "And he's 6'6". He just sees it. And he's got a gift of an arm. But I just love his humility and how consistent he is with his demeanor and his preparation day in and day out. Easy, easy, easy guy to coach and easy guy to get behind and support."

Lawrence's performance in Clemson's overwhelming 30-3 win over Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl served as the first of what are certain to be many defining moments to come.

It wasn't just the 327 passing yards and three touchdowns, or a second quarter in which he threw for more than 200 yards and buried the Irish in a 15-minute stretch. It was the individual plays—like his surgical 42-yard touchdown pass to freshman wideout Justyn Ross in the middle of the field. 

One NFC top-level evaluator told B/R after the game that it was the best he's seen a freshman play since Andrew Luck at Stanford. "Every ball he throws is almost perfect," Ross said. "You have to try to drop the ball if you're going to."

In the postgame, Lawrence wasn't giddy or overwhelmed about securing a trip to Santa Clara, California, to play in the national championship game. Like he has done the last five years, the quarterback pushed the spotlight off himself and onto the many gifted athletes on the roster.   

"It makes it a lot easier on me when you have guys all around you that are just great players and take that load off of you," the freshman said. "There's not much pressure when you have guys this good playing around you."

He isn't wrong. Clemson's stable of 6'4" wideouts and lightning-bolt running back Travis Etienne would be enough to give the Tigers a puncher's chance against Alabama, even with one of the four QBs that departed instead of Lawrence.

But Lawrence holds the ingredients to engineer the upset. Not just the wealth of physical gifts that should push Alabama, but also a certain serenity that has helped fast-track his development.

This is more than a hope and a prayer for Clemson, which has a legitimate counter to sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who became a star as a true freshman in the title game a season ago. Lawrence will attempt to do the same, although Nick Saban and Alabama have derailed plenty of the most optimistic game plans in the past.

Many have tried, most have failed, but it can be done. Watson showed us what was possible two years ago against this opponent on this stage. It'll likely require a similar Herculean effort from Lawrence for Clemson to win its second national championship in three years.

That might seem like a lot to ask of a true freshman thrust into the biggest moment of his life against one of the most challenging opponents he will ever play. In most ordinary situations, that is true. But nothing about these past five years or the player himself is anything close to ordinary.

     

Matt Hayes and Matt Miller contributed to this report.

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