By Ron Higgins
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney is a nice guy who faces hard decisions.
When Swinney makes any lineup change, it’s done with the understanding no starting job is sacred. There’s no entitlement in the Tigers’ program. It was never more apparent this season when Swinney promoted true freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence to starter, supplanting returning starter and 2017 ACC title game MVP Kelly Bryant after Clemson’s 4-0 start.
Swinney said the decision was based on “data.”
In the first four games, Bryant led the offense to seven scores (five touchdowns and two field goals) in 20 possessions. Lawrence came off the bench and guided the offense to 16 scores (13 touchdowns, three field goals) in 23 possessions.
The stats didn’t lie then, and they certainly don’t now. Lawrence just finished an 11-0 season as a starter with being named the Most Valuable Offensive Player in Clemson’s 44-16 win over Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, which gave Clemson a 15-0 record and its second national title in the last three years.
Lawrence’s remarkably consistent, poised performances during the regular season is why he’s the clear-cut winner of the FWAA’s Shaun Alexander National Freshman of the Year Award.
“As we looked over all the great freshman players this year, Trevor was everything we want in a student athlete and he is everything we want as a player and a person to carry the Shaun Alexander National Freshman Player of the Year Award,” said Alexander, who revealed Lawrence as the winner at this morning’s annual FWAA awards breakfast in San Jose, Calif.”
Lawrence embodies the eight traits – Talent, Character, Ambassador, Legend, Faith, Passion, Focus, Leader – inscribed on the gold coin he received as the Alexander winner.
One quality that has served Lawrence well and kept him level-headed in his meteoric rise to stardom is faith.
“Football is important to me, but it’s not my life,” Lawrence said a few days before he threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns in Clemson’s 30-3 CFP semifinal rout of No. 4 Notre Dame at the Coton Bowl. “My faith is the biggest thing in my life. It comes from knowing who I am outside of football. So, no matter how big the situation, it’s not going to define me. I put my identity in what Christ says and who He thinks I am. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what people think about me or how good I played.”
Lawrence, who turned 19 years old in October, has completed 239-of-365 passes for 2,933 yards, 27 touchdowns and four interceptions. Swinney is running out of words to describe his chill 6-6, 215-pound signal-caller, who just a year ago was ranked as the nation’s No. 2 high school quarterback at Cartersville (Ga.) High.
“What you see is who he is,” Swinney said. “Trevor is poised, he’s polished, he doesn’t get rattled. He’s accurate, athletic, can see the field. He’s got a gift of an arm. He’s got a rare confidence and focus. Just has always been really locked in on himself and who he is and not worried about things he doesn’t control.
“I 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. His teammates love him. He just has never looked like a freshman.”
When Bryant, a graduate senior, announced that he was transferring just days after Lawrence was named the starter (eventually settling on Missouri), it was an unexpected occurrence that could have unsettled a Clemson team seeking a fourth straight trip to the College Football Playoffs.
But it didn’t because of the way Lawrence handled it.
“You just have to earn respect and just kind of show what you can do and prove yourself a little bit, but not to be that guy that’s cocky and comes in and thinks he’s going to do all these things,” Lawrence said. “You can be confident, but I think it’s just got to show through how you play, going to work, just controlling what I can control and gradually showing what I could do that earned the respect of my teammates.”
From the get-go, Lawrence has impressed Clemson’s veterans.
“Trevor has just gotten better every week,” senior wide receiver Hunter Renfrow said. “I got to spend some time with him in the quarterback room. I saw from the third week to the fourth week to the fifth week, how he slowed everything down, how he was able to process everything and really just command the attention of the team.”
The only thing that initially surprised the Clemson coaching staff about Lawrence is that he was more advanced than they anticipated.
“You can see it when a kid has that ‘it’ factor and is special and, you know, he probably was a little bit further along when he came in in January than maybe we were expecting,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott. “He’s the kind of guy that during his lunch breaks is going into the coach’s office and watching film. We knew recruiting him he was going to be the type of player that he is.”
As the season progressed, Lawrence, who wears the number 16 in honor of Peyton Manning because he was his favorite player, earned rave reviews from opposing head coaches.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who tutored both Peyton and Eli Manning in college in his earlier coaching stops at Tennessee and Ole Miss, was suitably impressed with Lawrence.
“You don’t stop him, you just try to minimize the damage,” said Cutcliffe, whose team lost to Clemson 35-6 when Lawrence threw for 251 yards and two scores. “You have to defend, cover and try to create some great rush. He has incredible arm strength. He certainly looks very poised for a true freshman.”
Boston College coach Steve Addazio was just as wowed by Lawrence, who passed for 245 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score in the Tigers’ 27-7 November road win over the Eagles.
“He’s accurate, he’s got size and he’s got some savvy,” Addazio said of Lawrence. “He’s the real deal.”
With Lawrence’s final challenge against Alabama, Lawrence has a chance to become the first true freshman to lead his team to a national title since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985.
“He’s very instinctive in terms of making the reads he needs to make, and he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes where he wants to throw the ball,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Lawrence. “He’s done a good job of reading the defense and taking what the defense gives him.
“We tried to recruit him. He’s a fine young man and a great competitor. He’s certainly proven that over the course of this season. He doesn’t look like a freshman, that’s for sure.”
The fact Lawrence is facing Alabama in the championship game makes the first FWAA Shaun Alexander National Freshman of the Year Award even more special for the award’s Crimson Tide namesake.
“Alabama playing against Dabo Swinney-led Clemson will always be special because of how much the ’Bama family loves Dabo,” Alexander said of Swinney, a member of the 1992 Alabama national championship team and later an assistant coach with the Crimson Tide. ”But Trevor, being the first (Shaun Alexander National Freshman of the Year) winner who’s coached by a ’Bama national champion like Dabo going against Alabama for all the marbles has just sweetened the pot.
“But that’s what special players do. They add to the game the potential for possible moments people will remember for a long time.”