AUBURN, Ala.—Carl Lawson watched a lot of film last season, and it wasn’t always of his own team. Auburn’s rising junior defensive end passed the time recovering from a torn ACL by studying some of the premier pass rushers in the SEC. Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett was one of his favorites. He also admired Shane Ray, the NFL-bound former Missouri standout who led the conference with 13 sacks in 2014.
Now Lawson fancies himself a bit of a talent scout. In fact, he claims to have predicted Ray’s emergence long ago.
“You can ask my teammates about this, I promise you,” Lawson says. “My freshman season, every time we’d be in the film room and watch Missouri, all they’d talk about was Kony Ealy. But I’d be like, who is this No. 56 coming off the edge? I promise you, that’s all I would talk about. No. 56, all the time. Sure enough, look at last year.”
Lawson has a soft spot for dominant defensive players. Like a writer honing his craft, the 6’2”, 257-pounder hopes to take bits and pieces from other SEC stars’ games and work them into his own. He calls Garrett a “lengthy, finesse” player, while Ray is a “speed-off-the-edge guy.” As a new and improved Lawson readies for a return to action, he plans to be better than ever before.
Lawson missed all of the 2014 season after tearing the ACL in his left knee on the second-to-last day of spring practice last April, and he underwent surgery May 1. The injury halted what felt like a barreling freight train of momentum: Lawson racked up 20 tackles, including 7.5 for loss and four sacks, as a true freshman in '13. He earned All-SEC honors during the Tigers’ charmed run to the national title game and looked every bit like the five-star prospect who signed in coach Gus Malzahn’s first recruiting class.
A year removed from his injury, Lawson sits on a bench on the ground floor of Auburn’s football complex, just outside of the Tigers’ locker room. A surgical scar is visible on his left knee. The possibility of losing a step on the field isn’t what haunts Lawson—it’s dreaming of the sophomore campaign he’ll never get back.
“People say I had a good year [in 2013],” he says. “I didn’t think I had that good of a year. When I was really at my best, I feel like, was last spring. I felt like I got a lot better and the game slowed down. That’s what I was really disappointed about—I felt like I made so much progress from my freshman year in that transition into my sophomore season.”
Auburn felt the effect of Lawson’s absence. The Tigers finished 11th in the SEC in sacks (21), yards allowed per carry (4.45) and points allowed per game (26.7). That lackluster effort got defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson fired. Generating pressure was difficult for the Tigers, and coaches believe things would have been different with Lawson in the lineup. “He’s one of the better pass rushers in college football,” Malzahn says. “If you can put pressure on a quarterback rushing four, it makes all the difference in the world. Without him, it was a challenge at times.”
|Sept. 5||Louisville (in Atlanta)|
|Sept. 12||Jacksonville State|
|Sept. 19||at LSU|
|Sept. 26||Mississippi State|
|Oct. 3||San Jose State|
|Oct. 15||at Kentucky|
|Oct. 24||at Arkansas|
|Oct. 31||Ole Miss|
|Nov. 7||at Texas A&M|
Lawson was forced to watch from the sideline as his defense stumbled. He was set to shine as a sophomore, but the way things unfolded didn’t stick to his script.
A downtrodden Lawson leaned on friends and family during the rehab process. His father, Carl Sr., a former fullback at Georgia Tech, remains a primary influence on him. A number of teammates kept Lawson on the right path, particularly running back Peyton Barber, Lawson’s roommate and former teammate at Milton High in Alpharetta, Ga. Lawson admits there were times when he couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. His support system made sure he knew it was there.
Lawson also maintained a sense of perspective. He experienced true loss only two years earlier, when Mike Scott, the offensive line coach at Milton High, passed away due to pancreatic cancer. Known as “Big Show,” Scott was a larger-than-life presence on the Eagles’ staff and another father figure in Lawson’s life. Scott was diagnosed with stage IV adenocarcinoma early in Lawson’s senior season in 2012. He passed away that December.
Scott’s death made Lawson realize that no one is invincible.
“It happened so fast,” Lawson says. “He was a man’s man. When it happened, it was like, ‘Whoa, he went down?’ It was a blow to our high school team. He really just brought that blue-collar mentality, which I picked up on.”
That mentality helped Lawson return to form this spring. He was limited for some workouts and sat out during scrimmages, but Malzahn describes Lawson as “the same player he was before he got hurt.” The bulk of Lawson’s ACL rehab involved rebuilding muscle, so he focused on improving his quad strength and correcting for any imbalance. He credits Auburn’s strength staff for keeping him in shape.
The results thus far have been positive. Lawson recently clocked a 10-yard split in the 40-yard dash at 1.57 seconds. That’s faster than his split as a freshman and would have ranked second to Virginia's Eli Harold at February’s NFL combine.
Lawson’s return to the field also coincides with his introduction at a new position. He has spent much of the spring in the “Buck” role, a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker spot in new coordinator Will Muschamp’s scheme. Lawson sees it as an opportunity to put his speed and versatility on display. Teammates agree.
“He fits perfectly,” sophomore defensive lineman Raashed Kennion says. “I think he can play anywhere, honestly, just because of his body size and his knowledge of the game. He understands everything.”
Lawson’s hunger to succeed never disappeared. He is a mainstay in the film room and consistently texts Muschamp, asking question after question about his system. A major injury early in a player’s career can sometimes threaten that career’s longevity. Yet Lawson wouldn’t allow fear to enter his mind; instead, he used it as fuel.
However, Lawson becomes noticeably anxious when asked about the upcoming season. His knee bounces up and down as he talks. He knows there’s a lot to like about the Tigers’ 2015 defense—not counting Lawson, the unit brings back eight starters, including linebackers Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost—as it embraces a new approach and a chance to return to championship contention.
This season is also a chance for Lawson to make up for lost time.
“I can’t sit there and cry over spilled milk,” Lawson says. “I missed last season and I wanted to be out there with my brothers. But I just have to move forward.”