This time last year, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence owned college football. Following a shocking, but convincing win over Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship, Lawrence, still technically a freshman, was a surefire Heisman Trophy candidate and a future No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft.
Offseason popularity and hype is nothing new, but it can be dangerous. The idea that Lawrence could do no wrong only guaranteed that the expectations for him to follow that up in 2019 were unrealistic. Lawrence certainly played well against the Crimson Tide, but he also had a tremendous supporting cast and played his best football at the right time. So when Lawrence got off to a slow start at the beginning of the 2019 season, the pendulum quickly swung in the other direction. Lawrence was deemed “overrated” and Clemson “not as dominant” (more on that later). Obviously, those sentiments were too trigger-happy. Clemson peaked at the right time and made it back to the College Football Playoff National Championship, falling to LSU.
Now back for his junior season, Lawrence once again enters as one of the sport’s premier players. But have we, as fans and media alike, learned anything from pumping up Lawrence the first time around? What are the actual expectations for Lawrence in 2020 — whenever the season does start up? It helps to look back at why Lawrence struggled to begin with, where and how he grew from it, and what it means for next season.
Lawrence tried a bit too hard early last year
And could you blame him with all the noise? Lawrence slayed Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship and was anointed future Heisman winner and No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Some talking heads even implied that it would be foolish to play another down of college football (a point that, financially speaking, is another conversation for another time).
The result, it seemed, was Lawrence trying to play more like the player everyone thought he was going to be instead of the player he was (and is). “I was still having fun. But I do think I was just thinking a little too much about what I needed to do to live up to the expectations,” he told Grace Raynor of The Athletic. “And I think it’s easy to start thinking about those things.”
And thinking too much resulted in inaccurate throws or interceptions as a result of bad decision-making. His eight interceptions in the first seven games of the season doubled his count as a freshman. And while no two picks are always the same — they can be a result of anything from bad throws to a receiver not running the right route — Lawrence’s two picks in one quarter against Louisville marked a low point in the sophomore’s season. To be sure, Lawrence deserved blame. On both instances, he had at least a decent pocket and time to throw. He just misread the coverages.
While Lawrence’s early struggles were concerning, they were overstated. For as talented as he is, it’s easy to forget Lawrence entered his true sophomore season with only 11 starts — and he was knocked out of his first one against Syracuse. Lawrence was starting his sophomore year without security blanket Hunter Renfrow in the slot and the intermediate part of his passing game suffered, as did his downfield throws. But no career is perfectly linear. And for every bad pass Lawrence had, he had a handful of other highlight-worthy ones.
For whatever reason, Lawrence’s regression coupled with one (1) close game against North Carolina manifested into a narrative that Clemson wasn’t as dominant as other national title contenders — or as dominant as they were a year ago. Yours truly fell for it — at least in part — but it was, of course, a ridiculous notion. The Tigers were fielding an elite defense, allowing 11.4 points per game through September and October and beating opponents by an average 22 points per game between Week 1 vs. Georgia Tech and Week 7 vs. Louisville. Meanwhile, in that same seven-game span, the offense was at the very least keeping pace with the 2018 championship squad in touchdowns scored, trailing by only two (37 to 39). The point being, while Lawrence had some early misreads, Clemson as a whole was more or less every bit as good as the one the season before.
Lawrence played better than he did in 2018
Early unevenness aside, Lawrence was actually better in 2019 than he was in 2018. That’s good! It shows growth as a player. Coach Dabo Swinney said last December that Lawrence was “twice the quarterback right now that he was in the national championship game when everybody was crowning him the king of football.” The numbers back this up. His completion percentage raised slightly (65.2 to 65.8) while his total yards (3,665), touchdowns (36), yards per attempt (9.0) and rating (166.75) all went notably up as well.
So what happened? As documented by multiple outlets, including Jake Lourim at FiveThirtyEight and Bill Connelly at ESPN, Clemson changed its approach to the passing game. Lawrence started taking more underneath throws and fewer chances down the field. The result was a higher completion percentage — he finished every remaining regular-season game over 70% — along with better yards per attempt. Most importantly: no interceptions. Lawrence didn’t throw a single pick from the end of October through the end of the season.
But perhaps the biggest addition to Lawrence’s game wasn’t through the air … it was on the ground. Did anyone outside of Clemson realize Lawrence had wheels? Because he did last year to the point where he eclipsed 100 carries for 563 yards and nine touchdowns. None of them were more impressive than this 67-yard run against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Lawrence wasn’t just moving around in the pocket or scrambling for a first down. He was shaking defenders in the open field and outrunning guys who should theoretically be, and probably are, faster than him.
The added dimension of Lawrence in the rushing attack was a nice, unexpected addition while the passing part of his game dipped. By the end of the season, however, he was a bona fide dual-threat who could give you six-to-eight carries per game and score.
Now that we’ve looked back at Lawrence’s 2019 effort, here’s what to expect moving forward starting with his supporting cast.
Clemson is reloading along the offensive line
A quarterback is only as good as his protection allows him to be and the Tigers lost four starters along the offensive line from last season. Left tackle Jackson Carman, a former five-star recruit, is the lone returner after starting all 15 games last season. But don’t call it a rebuild. There are a lot of juniors and seniors in this group with game experience. Guards Matt Bockhorst and Will Putnam, along with center Cade Stewart, have 76 career game appearances and two starts among them. Tackle Jordan McFadden has 17 game appearances.
Jackson Carman (OT)
Cade Stewart (C)
Matt Bockhorst (OG)
Jordan McFadden (OT)
Will Putnam (OG)
Depth was a strength of Clemson’s offensive line a year ago, and as a result, the starting five up front is more or less set. Cyclically, though, depth is more of a question this time around even with 15 scholarship linemen — 10 of which are either incoming freshmen or coming off their freshman season. The good news is that the Tigers have done a nice job recently of cycling through linemen to give them game experience. For Lawrence, he’ll be taking snaps behind a starting five that has played a lot of ball and done so on big stages.
There are still a lot of weapons around Lawrence, too
Tee Higgins is gone, and yeah, that’s a big loss. Higgins was as reliable as any wideout over the past two years. In that span, he never missed a game as a starter, caught 86 balls resulting in first downs and was a monster red zone weapon with 14 of his 25 touchdowns coming from inside the 20-yard line. He was a good route runner for a big-bodied pass-catcher and had an insane catch radius. He will, as they say, be missed.
But Lawrence has more than enough weapons to make up for Higgins’ departure. You can start with running back Travis Etienne, who surprised many when he eschewed the NFL Draft to return for his senior season. In the conversation of college football’s best running backs, Etienne has been somewhat overshadowed by other outrageous production backs like J.K. Dobbins and Jonathan Taylor. Yet Etienne has posted consecutive 1,600-yard seasons and was far more of a receiving threat in 2019 (432 yards, four touchdowns). He’s already the school’s all-time leading rusher and there’s a good chance he’ll go down as one of the best players to ever come through the program. His backup, Lyn-J Dixon, is a solid No. 2 with 104 touches in 2019, 11 career touchdowns and a rushing average of 7.1 yards.
That’s just at running back. Justyn Ross, Amari Rodgers and what will likely be a combination of Joseph Ngata, Frank Ladson Jr. and tight end Braden Galloway make up a talented receiving corps with All-ACC and All-American potential. Other than Galloway, all the aforementioned skill players were blue-chip recruits, per 247Sports. And other than Rodgers, Clemson’s pass-catching group is loaded with length and size (Ross, Ladson and Ngata are all 6-foot-3 and up, and around or above 200 pounds). After having breakout performances in the College Football Playoff in 2018, Ross enters his junior season as one of college football’s freaks at wideout.
So what are the expectations for Lawrence?
He’ll still be a preseason Heisman candidate. William Hill Sportsbook has him at 4-1 per its latest odds — second-best behind Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. Clemson will once again be favored to win the ACC with no clear threat elsewhere and be in the running for the playoff. None of those things have changed. That’s life for Clemson now.
Rather, it’s about how Lawrence handles new changes from the start of the season — especially with spring practice being cut short and the possibility of a modified preseason due to COVID-19 fallout. This is true for every star in every program, but Lawrence has a different kind of spotlight on him. What happens if Clemson’s new-look offensive line takes a while to come together? Will Lawrence be able to handle the pressure and move the chains? Does he go back to taking better care of the football? Does he continue to improve in his reads and progressions?
Lawrence has always been “that dude” — the type of player who commands respect because of his skill level. He has great arm talent and can make all the throws. There’s no doubting his leadership or intangible qualities. On two occasions now, he’s shown he can get better as the year goes on. He’s already proved a lot of people right. Rather, 2020 is a question of just how much better Lawrence can get vs. already assuming he’s where he needs to be. Like last year, he may have some dips. But how does he respond to that? Chances are we’re getting one more season of Lawrence in a Clemson uniform. Watching him grow as a player should be something we enjoy along the way.