CLEMSON, S.C. — THERE’S A PLAY from Clemson‘s spring game Dabo Swinney keeps thinking about. It’s the start of the second quarter. Trevor Lawrence takes a shotgun snap and quickly recognizes pressure coming from up the middle. Lawrence rolls to his left, arm cocked, eyes looking downfield. He skips past a tackler, then in mid-stride unleashes a laser — throwing across his body, arm strength that’s borderline inhuman — embarrassing a well-positioned defender and dropping the ball perfectly into hands of freshman receiver Joseph Ngata along the sideline 40 yards downfield.
Trevor Lawrence rolls out of the pocket and hits Joseph Ngata near the sideline and the Clemson WR is able to keep his feet inbounds.
There’s not much that truly baffles Swinney these days, not many plays that will cause him to stop the film, back up, and watch it again and again and again. But here’s Clemson’s soon-to-be-sophomore QB, already a national champion and arguably the most talked-about player in college football, doing something new and mind-boggling.
“There are maybe five guys on the planet who can make that throw,” Swinney said.
The other four? They play on Sundays and have a team of accountants handling their paychecks.
That’s the standard for Lawrence as he heads into Year 2 of three guaranteed seasons on campus. He has 11 starts under his belt, and he’s quite likely already the most pro-ready QB in college football.
One NFL GM said Lawrence would’ve been a top-five pick in this year’s draft if he’d been eligible.
Another high-ranking NFL personnel man said, “There’s not much he lacks. At some point, he’ll be the first pick in the draft.”
All of which begs the question: If Lawrence is already that good, where does he go from here? That’s what Lawrence is wondering, too.
“Everyone’s watching everything I do”
It was February, and Lawrence was back in action, part of an intramural basketball team made up of Clemson football players. The game got tense. An opposing player was talking smack because, how often does a regular kid get a chance to talk smack to the most popular quarterback in college football? Then, after Lawrence missed a shot, the kid set a quick screen. Lawrence was miffed, and he shoved the guy to the ground.
Lawrence’s shove was plastered across dozens of sports pages and even made it to TMZ. Anyone else gets T’d up in an intramural game, it’s forgotten within a free throw. When Lawrence does it, it’s lighter fluid for hot takes.
“At the time, I got pretty upset,” Lawrence said. “I thought it was crazy. Playing basketball, it’s happened to everybody. Tempers get flared, something happens, but I think it’s a good lesson for me. Just knowing everyone’s watching everything I do.”
Mel Kiper analyzes the draft stock of Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa and Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence if they were eligible for the 2019 NFL draft.
Here’s the inherent paradox Lawrence faces. For most of his life, he’s been a quarterback. At Clemson, for the next two years, he wants to be something more. He wants to find out who he is. He wants to play pick-up basketball and go fishing and make friends and do charity work and go to church and, oh yeah, win a couple more national championships. Lawrence’s talent makes that last part a genuine possibility, but it also makes all the other things a challenge.
Lawrence is just like many other 19-year-olds at college. He’s figuring out what it means to be an adult and asking existential questions about life and privilege and happiness. He wants to use his college experience to find answers.
But he isn’t at all like everyone else.
At the end of the spring semester, Swinney called Lawrence into his office for a routine exit interview. Swinney meets with everyone. But the message for his star QB was unique.
“The light’s going to get brighter,” Swinney said.
He talked about time. Lawrence will be the face of Clemson football, the defending champs. That comes at a price, and as much as Lawrence wants to please everyone, he needs to learn to say no.
“Whether it’s in the NFL or having a job in the real world, it’s hard to be a regular person. So I think it’s important to work on yourself, on your soul.”
Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence
They talked about expectations. Swinney recounted his final season with star Deshaun Watson, and how Lawrence’s predecessor set a template for how to handle the spotlight. Both are unassuming and laser focused — “so similar it’s scary,” Swinney said. But Lawrence wants to carve out his own space, too.
They talked about scrutiny. Lawrence set a high bar for 2019, and now any stumbles along the way will be met with a national autopsy of his game.
“People love to cheer the young guy to go do great,” Swinney said. “But then they want to see him fail so they have something to go talk about.”
Lawrence’s mom, Amanda, recalls a night out for dinner in a town about 30 minutes from their home in Cartersville, Georgia, when a middle-aged man approached and asked for a photo with the hot-shot QB. Lawrence was in eighth grade at the time.
Six years later, Lawrence is wondering if it’s still possible to find himself amid all the requests for photos and autographs and time, all the scrutiny and headlines and hot takes. The scouts think he’s ready for the NFL. Lawrence isn’t so sure.
“I think for a lot of athletes it’s hard,” Lawrence said. “Whether it’s in the NFL or having a job in the real world, it’s hard to be a regular person. So I think it’s important to work on yourself, on your soul.”
“Sitting out bowl games … that’ll never be me”
If Lawrence is home early enough, he’ll perch on the small porch outside his apartment, where he has a view of the sunset. Or maybe he’ll wander out in the morning, before dawn, before the time evaporates amid another workout or 7-on-7 or study session. Some days, he’ll read his Bible. Others, he just sits back and enjoys the solitude.
“Just think and reflect on things and prepare myself,” Lawrence said.
He’s a teenager. But he also has a championship ring and a legion of fans. His future is all but certain, with NFL teams already drooling over his potential. But the truth is, Trevor Lawrence still isn’t quite sure who he is, and he needs this time to figure it all out.
Lawrence has been talking lately with his old high school coach, Joey King, about fame and football and the responsibility to use that platform for something worthwhile before the spotlight dims and the opportunity slips away. It’s an idea that’s resonated with Lawrence.
“I feel like it’s so easy to waste this time and platform we have,” Lawrence said. “It comes so fast, and you’re not expecting it.”
That’s led to bigger questions, and Lawrence admits he doesn’t have the answers. He wants to help people. He wants to give back to his community. He wants to carve out a true vision of himself before a million outside influences decide his future for him.
“That’s the big thing for me is really figuring out what I’m passionate about,” Lawrence said. “What do I want the next step to look like?”
Lawrence is starting in his own locker room. A year ago, he was the new kid, hoping to win playing time against an incumbent starter. He didn’t want to rock the boat. Now, he’s organizing practice, leading the freshmen through film study and saving up his stipends so he can afford to take his offensive line out for dinner.
But there’s more out there. Lawrence knows that. And he knows there’s a clock, counting down the time he has left to find it.
“Sitting out bowl games and stuff, that’ll never be me,” Lawrence said. “You won’t have to worry about writing those stories.”
What does Trevor Lawrence do next?
Before his senior season at Cartersville High School, Lawrence met with King to talk about the future.
King wanted to know what his star QB, one of the top recruits in the country, wanted to achieve that year. State title? Prepare for college? Gain a few pounds or refine his footwork?
Lawrence was thinking bigger picture.
His answer: “I want to be the best to ever play quarterback.”
These days, Lawrence is a bit uncomfortable with the comment. He admits to the cliche, but insists his goals today are more about his team and making Clemson better. Still, the argument could be made his ceiling is virtually limitless.
“For a lot of guys, that’s far-fetched, but I don’t think it is for him,” said King, now the head coach at Coastal Carolina. “He’s just got ‘it.’ The intangibles he has — his work ethic, his drive, who he is as a person — that’s kind of like the perfect storm.”
Look down the list of future first-round QBs, and Lawrence’s freshman campaign dwarfs them all. But that’s not enough. There, at the mountaintop, is Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers. Think they’re pleased with 30 touchdowns and four interceptions in a season?
“Trevor’s way above 99% of typical freshmen, but everybody has the opportunity to improve,” Swinney said. “That’s what made Peyton Manning great. That’s what makes Tom Brady great. [Brady] is somewhere on a field doing footwork drills at 42 years old, trying to get better.”
Trevor Lawrence discusses how he grew from a vocal standpoint in the spring and how Clemson can go back to back.
So Lawrence worked this spring with QB coach Brandon Streeter on his launch points, getting the ball out of his hand in exactly the right spot. He hit the weight room hard, hoping to fill out his 6-foot-6 frame. He’s up about 10 pounds from last season already. During his downtime, back in Cartersville during summer break, Lawrence checked in with his old QB coach, Ron Veal, to work on using his hips and legs more to drive the ball.
And then there’s that play from the spring game. Swinney’s been talking about that one ever since. That, he said, is where Lawrence’s game can reach new heights.
“You can’t defend that,” Swinney said.
There’s more Lawrence has worked on this spring though. He took up golf. He’s not great, but he’s learning. He likes fishing, too. He’s been tagging along with teammates who know all the tricks, hoping to learn a few things while they’re out on the lake. And there’s the intramural basketball team. Those are the small steps. He’s still figuring out the big ones.
“You look at [a lot of] the guys in the NFL, it seems like it is their whole life, where every minute of the day is dedicated to football,” Lawrence said. “And I don’t want that to be me.” Don’t misunderstand. Lawrence isn’t criticizing. He loves the grind, too. He made the choice a long time ago to invest himself in a goal that sounded impossible and worked until the vision became clear to everyone.
“He’s as deadly as anybody when he’s outside the pocket.”
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney
“That’s what he’s made of inside,” Swinney said. “He’s got the right stuff, man.”
But now he’s wondering what else he might do, what other dreams he can will into reality. Best there ever was? That would be a nice start. Then what? Lawrence wants to be like Manning and Brady — but he doesn’t want to be Manning and Brady. He wants to be Trevor Lawrence, whoever that turns out to be.
“I take things from all those guys that are the best who’ve done it, but I want to do things differently than these guys did,” Lawrence said. “They’re great, the way they went about their business, they’re great people and that’s something to admire. So I take something from all of them, but I want to do it my own way.”
ESPN senior writer Mike Sando contributed to this story.