CLEMSON, S.C. – Both guys played at first – the veteran getting most of the time, but the precocious freshman seeing plenty of action. And then four games in, the coaches had seen enough. It was time, they determined, that Trevor Lawrence became the starter.
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“It was easy to see,” says Miller Forristall, adding that he’d seen the moment coming for months, ever since a lanky kid with a buzz cut had begun working out with Cartersville High School’s varsity players. So when the coaches called Forristall, a talented junior quarterback, into a meeting, he understood.
You know Lawrence as Clemson’s true freshman quarterback, a long-haired phenom with a rocket arm who has elevated the Tigers’ offense – and by extension, their hopes of winning the national championship – since supplanting senior starter Kelly Bryant in late September. Clemson coaches say they just knew.
“This guy is the best guy,” says co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, recounting the conversations among the coaching staff before making the change. “He makes us different.”.
And their move this season is very similar to the scenario that unfolded four years earlier, when Cartersville coach Joey King called Forristall, a talented junior, into the office. Forristall knew, too.
“They’d talked about how good an eighth-grader was,” Forristall says, “but you take that with a grain of salt, because how good could the kid really be?
“The kid was pretty good.”.
Forristall was pretty good, too – but he’s now an Alabama tight end. He is not surprised at all about how things unfolded this season at Clemson. And he figures anyone who’s somehow missed the developments will soon understand.
“People will see,” says Forristall, referring to No. 2 Clemson’s matchup with No. 3 Notre Dame in a College Football Playoff semifinal at the Cotton Bowl. “He’ll play on the largest stage.”.
Those who know Lawrence best expect him to play on even bigger stages, too – and to excel there. And they describe a humble kid who’s developing a more vocal presence, but is fueled by his Christian faith – his pregame playlist is routinely worship music, he says, by the group Hillsong – and has demonstrated a work ethic that won over teammates. Lawrence enrolled last January and, according to coaches and teammates, quietly got to work. They say there was no hubris from the high-school hype.
“I felt like he did a good job, since day one, of earning the respect of his teammates,” says Christian Wilkins, Clemson’s senior All-America defensive lineman. “It was easy for guys to believe in him and get behind him. You’ve got to respect a guy who comes to work every day.”.
When Lawrence was named the starter in September, Wilkins took him to breakfast. Well, actually, Lawrence took Wilkins, who doesn’t have a car on campus. But it was the upperclassman’s idea – and it was not because, as he jokes: “I was hungry, and I like breakfast. It’s the most important meal of the day.”.
Turning serious, Wilkins says he understood at least some of the pressure Lawrence was facing, as a freshman suddenly thrust into a leading role on one of the nation’s best teams, with huge accompanying expectations. And not insignificant, Lawrence was replacing a well-liked and respected leader who was suddenly not a part of the team. When coaches told Bryant they were making the change, he elected to leave the team; he later decided to transfer to Missouri.
“It was an interesting situation and there was a lot going on,” Wilkins says. “(I thought), ‘Let me just see where this guy’s head’s at a little bit.”.
During that breakfast at the SunnySide Café, Wilkins was impressed with how Lawrence was handling the situation, and says he has only grown more impressed in the weeks since.
“(It’s) just how mature he is for a young guy,” Wilkins says. “… He has the right mindset. He’s going to do great in life and dominate this world.”.
Of that breakfast, Lawrence says: “It means a lot. It shows his leadership.” And he calls the entire situation “a blessing to be playing for such a good team.”.
“I’m just blessed to be in a place like this,” Lawrence says, “with the coaches we have and the people here.”.
Scott had been angling for Lawrence since his freshman season, when he visited Clemson with his family. When Scott saw the big kid who was just beginning to grow into his frame, his first thought was: “That’s what a future NFL quarterback looks like, right there.”.
He’s now 6-6 and 215 pounds, with more growth possible – both in his stature and his game – but the talent is already undeniable. It was evident during practices last spring, when Swinney told reporters Lawrence had “every tool you could possibly want in a quarterback.” And it was obvious during the Tigers’ first four games, when he shared time with Bryant.
“It was a unanimous decision,” says Scott of the decision to name Lawrence the starter. “That’s what we wanted to wait on. It would have been very easy to see what was coming and make a move early. I think a lot of coaches would have done it after the spring game, but we really wanted to let them compete on the field. We said, ‘We’ll know when it was time.'”.
Lawrence was named the ACC’s rookie of the year after throwing for 2,606 yards, with 24 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
“Really, it’s not me,” Lawrence says. “It’s our whole offense.”.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney gets more than a little riled at the suggestion the move was made with an eye on the playoff. But Lawrence obviously helped elevate the offense. Clemson averages 45.4 points, and while running back Travis Etienne has led a dangerous running game, Lawrence’s abilities opened up previously unseen possibilities in the passing game – and might have elevated the Tigers’ potential for a national championship.
Swinney does not shy away from high expectations – or from setting them. He says Lawrence could become the Tigers’ first Heisman Trophy winner.
“If the good Lord keeps him healthy, he’ll have as good a shot as anybody,” says Swinney, who already knew about Lawrence’s passing ability but says he has been impressed with the freshman’s rapid development in decision-making, as well as his growing confidence in running.
With each game, according to Clemson’s coaches, they’ve seen some new sign of growth. None of which surprises King, Lawrence’s high school coach, or Forristall, his high school teammate. They’ve seen this all play out before. They knew.
“When we brought Miller in, he said, ‘Coach, I can’t make the plays this kid is making,'” King recalls.
Few can. Even fewer, King says, have Lawrence’s combination of intangibles.
“He wants to be the best that’s ever done it,” King says. “If he continues to work, it may be attainable. Obviously, he’s really talented, but he’s ultra-competitive, too.”.