By Will Vandervort
In the week leading up to the Georgia game, Clemson defensive ends coach Marion Hobby came into Dabo Swinney’s office with an issue.
“I have a problem Coach,” he said. “I have three starters at defensive end and I’m struggling to decide which two I should start.”
It was a good problem to have. Hobby, Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables counted on starting Corey Crawford on the strong side of the defensive line and Vic Beasley on the opposite. Both were juniors that patiently waited their turns and were ready to take over the duties as premiere pass rushing ends as well as leaders.
But something happened on the way to the obvious – they were not expecting freshman defensive end Shaq Lawson to come in and pick up things so quickly this summer.
“Well, I figured if it was a tie, then a tie goes to the veteran. End of discussion,” Swinney said.
It made since for the Tigers to start the season that way, plus the coaches wanted to see if Lawson could transfer it from the practice fields—where he was dominant in camp—to the game field.
“There was really a tie between him and Vic coming out of practice and I told Vic that, too,” Swinney said. “’You better go perform because this big boy is on your heels right here.’ It was close, and running out first is always a big deal to those guys.”
Beasley has gone out first in every game thus far, and, thanks to his ACC leading five sacks, he still gets to, but Lawson is right behind him. The freshman from nearby Daniel High School in Central, S.C., has one sack and 4.5 tackles for loss, which ranks second on the team only to Beasley.
“It’s been fun,” Swinney said. “He has done just what we wanted to see him do. He has transferred what we have seen in practice to the game field. This guy is a special talent.”
In Swinney’s opinion, Lawson might be the best defensive linemen Clemson has signed since Swinney came to Clemson in 2003. That’s pretty big praise considering Clemson’s had defensive ends and linemen such as Gaines Adams, DaQuan Bowers, Jarvis Jenkins, Brandon Thompson and Phillip Merling. All five have played or are currently playing in the NFL.
“I’m just practicing and learning as much as I can from Vic, Corey and Tavaris (Barnes),” a very modest Lawson said. “That’s making my game much better.”
Maybe that’s the case, or maybe it’s due to the fact other things have happened in Lawson’s young life that motivate him and keep him focused on the things that really matter.
On the way back from the 2011 NFL Draft party for former Daniel High School and Clemson star Jarvis Jenkins, Lawson’s father tragically died in a car accident. The whole Daniel High School community was in shock.
Lawson’s father was his best friend and everyone knew it would be a tough period for the up-and-coming senior. But with the help of his teammates, coaches and family, Lawson persevered. He recorded 99 tackles, 23 tackles for loss, nine sacks and forced five fumbles his senior year at Daniel. That following February he signed with Clemson and appeared to be on the fast track of a promising college career.
But for the second time in a year Lawson had to deal with adversity. He was unable to qualify in time to attend Clemson and though he eventually did, it was too late for him to enroll in school so he sat out the first semester and attended Hargrave Military Prep School in Virginia.
“The first couple of months were tough at Hardgrave, but I just had to settle down and get used to it,” Lawson said. “But after a while I realized God put me there for a reason and it is really paying off right now.”
Eventually Lawson flourished at Hargrave. He led the nation in sacks and tackles for loss and became the No. 1 rated prep school prospect in the country. He stuck with his commitment to Clemson and enrolled last January.
“Sometimes for a freshman coming in, the transition to practice, all that type of stuff and the routine is a challenge,” Swinney said. “But he has sucked it up and absorbed everything well. He has become one of those guys that everybody on the team immediately respects because he practices hard and plays with passion.
“He works his butt off down there in the weight room and works his butt of at Vickery Hall and always has a smile on his face.”
These days, whenever he runs down the hill or makes a tackle for loss or sack like he did in last week’s win over NC State, Lawson said he thinks of where he has been and where he wants to go. He thinks of his father and he thinks about how proud he must be.
“My dad’s death and then going to Hargrave, it made me more of a man,” the freshman said. “It prepared me for life and especially football. It gave me a path on how to be successful.”
It also set him up for a path to help lead. On Tuesday, defensive tackle Carlos Watkins returned to the team after a horrific car accident that took the life of his cousin. Though Watkins did not suffer any serious physical injury, his heart is heavy and will be for the weeks and months to come.
That’s where Lawson’s experience can help his heartbroken teammate.
“When my dad died it was tough at first and sometimes it still feels like a dream,” Lawson said. “I got over it a little bit, but it still hits me sometimes on certain days like on his birthday or Father’s Day.
“You have to continue to pray for him and let him know you are there for him. My situation was hard, but I had my high school teammates around me and they helped me. That’s what I will try to be to him. I’ll tell him to ‘keep your head up. Every time you play, just do it for your cousin.’”