Shaq Lawson concluded he needed to be faster. He figured the most efficient way to achieve this was by running with, and after, other fast people. So Clemson’s junior defensive end joined the team’s skill position players for off-season cardio activities: Sprints, long-distance, you name it.
Imagine, then, a 275-pound human who normally works in short bursts chugging along with the thoroughbreds, players essentially built for speed. And then imagine the Tigers running 40-yard dashes with partners before the 2015 season began and Lawson lining up next to Tyshon Dye, a 215-pound tailback.
Now imagine Lawson winning and then pivoting and sprinting back to confirm his time. And then imagine this gargantuan person jumping and dancing and shouting, “Big Law!” as loud as he could to everyone and no one in particular. Imagine the months of torment inflicted upon poor Tyshon Dye by a grinning defensive lineman whose body mass is surpassed perhaps only by his exuberance and long memory.
“He says it was a bad day for him,” Lawson says. “I feel like we’re going to have to race again.”
Lawson doesn’t make it sound like too much trouble. Clemson’s most dominant defensive force is accustomed to reestablishing how good he is for anyone suspicious of it.
Everyone knows the story by now: The Tigers returned just three starters from a unit that led the nation in 11 different categories last season. And everyone knows how that story has played out: Lawson and the rest of the relative newcomers comprise a top 10 defense once more, helping boost the 10–0 Tigers to the top of the College Football Playoff rankings.
Perhaps no one’s production has been as consequential as Lawson’s, especially in the context of what it replaced. Clemson’s most significant defensive departure after 2014 was Vic Beasley, the playmaking end drafted No. 8 overall by the Atlanta Falcons in May. Lawson’s ascent from talented understudy to lodestar was even swifter than his 40 time. Only four players in the country have recorded more tackles for loss than Lawson’s 16.5 this year, and only two average more than his 1.7 stops behind the line of scrimmage per game.
“We figured it was going to happen,” says Clemson defensive tackle D.J. Reader, mindful that Lawson ranked second on the team with 11 tackles for loss last season. “We watched Vic, and Shaq come in, and no drop-off. This is a guy who could have left last year and went (to the NFL), but he stayed around and knew he wanted to get better.”
Lawson is also emblematic of Clemson’s run in this sense: He was already very good. Then he got a little bit better.
Seemingly every college player comes to a diet epiphany at some point; Lawson arrived there last summer, altering his habits according to a plan set out by Clemson’s in-house nutritionist. He cut fast food. (Bidding goodbye to Zaxby’s, and his chicken wings and Big Zax Snak Meals, felt particularly tragic.) He went heavy on grease-free fare like baked chicken and vegetables. He even ate broccoli, to his enduring surprise. “I was not a big fan of broccoli,” Lawson says. “I always thought it was nasty. But if they cook it for us, I’ll eat it.”
He has added five pounds from his listed weight as a freshman. But over the course of his Clemson career, Lawson guesses his body fat percentage has dropped from 23 percent to its current 16 to 17 percent. “You can tell when you eat healthy, your body feels a lot different,” he says. “You don’t feel sluggish.” Indeed, the new eating habits and the new running partners dovetailed to enhance Lawson’s explosiveness just a little bit and to increase his endurance just a little bit. And it all created another elite, game-altering edge presence.
Lawson points to a spin move that has become one of his favorites: Offensive lineman could essentially wait on it a couple years ago because he was too hefty and too slow to benefit from executing it. Now it might be his most effective technique to get to the passer because he has married his raw strength with upgraded propulsion. “I’m much faster off the ball,” Lawson says. “If I can run with [skill players], I knew I could run with anybody at my position or any offensive linemen.”
“He’s a great player, great athleticism,” Boston College coach Steve Addazio said. “They have a bunch of playmakers in their program. You’re talking about elite athletes, and he’s one of them.”
He has also honed his technique over time because he grew to understand the significance of it; Lawson had no clue how to read stances or upfield shoulders when he first arrived at Clemson. But defensive line coach Marion Hobby insisted upon its importance, as any coach would when working with such abundant raw material. “You get two evenly matched teams and somebody’s dead tired and you got technique, you’re going to beat him every time,” Lawson says. As a result, his production is now routinely laughable.
This is a very literal interpretation: Lawson laughs when he is getting blocked. He laughs when he is en route to the quarterback. And he certainly chuckles if he gets there and drops the opposition to the turf. “If you block him, he’ll just immediately start laughing,” Reader says. “He’s basically telling you, ‘Next play, I got you.’ Then he’ll get off that block and start laughing, like, ‘I told you I was going to get you.’ That’s basically what he’s insinuating right there.”
“Most defensive guys, they like to be mean and stuff,” Lawson says. “Me, I’m just happy because I’m enjoying what I’m doing.”
A player emblematic of Clemson’s rise from quite good to potentially great is also most emblematic of its approach to that journey. This is a program aiming to squeeze every droplet of fun out of its run, both as a general rule and as a mechanism for coping with pressure. And it has a star defensive end who wiggles his 275-pound frame after beating a running back in a race, a potential All-America that giggles while he works, a 21-year-old face of the program who has a very peculiar obsession with people’s breath.
“That’s like his favorite thing to talk about,” Reader says. “He’ll walk up to you, sniff your breath and be like, ‘Oh my god.’”
Shaq Lawson doesn’t care if you see him coming. Steadily, he has built himself into a defensive end with all the answers, with everything he needs to get into your face and laugh when he gets there. Lawson even has three moves that he hasn’t unleashed yet, he says. He’s waiting for the right time. With only a couple more Clemson wins, that time will come. It’s so close he can smell it.
Each week, The Walkthrough talks to two assistant coaches about a key upcoming matchup. In Week 12, it’s Virginia Tech’s defense trying to slow down ascendant North Carolina and its multi-threat quarterback Marquise Williams.
Bud Foster, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator: “(Williams) knows in the run game what his checks should be and when you keep the ball and not to keep it. He can create when things aren’t there in the passing game. He’s a big kid that has a great stiff arm. Where he’s improved to me the most—he looks to be more comfortable when he’s dropping back, he seems to know exactly what his reads are, he’s got a live arm. Knowing the type of athlete he is, being a defensive guy, you have to defend the whole field with him. Now that he’s kind of been given the reins, so to speak, he took the reins and he’s not letting up. He’s riding this thing hard. In the past we’ve been able to match up pretty good on the perimeter, but our star player on the back end (Kendall Fuller) has been out the majority of the season. We’re just young and inexperienced back there, but we can run, and we’ve got to be able to make some plays down the field ourselves or at least break up some plays. If we can control the run game, then I like our kids’ ability to rush the passer. That what’s we were able to do last year—they weren’t able to get anything done in the run game and we created a bunch of plays, several sacks, we had a pick and we were really good on third downs. We have to keep them behind the sticks.”
Keith Heckendorf, North Carolina quarterbacks coach: “The management piece of the game to me is where (Williams) has really taken off. He realizes now he is a weapon as a thrower, but he’s even a bigger weapon as a thrower when he uses his feet and he forces teams to defend all of him. When he tries to just be a runner, it limits him. When he tries to prove to everybody he’s a pocket thrower, it limits his ability. What he’s done through this stretch we’ve played here is he’s forced teams to defend all of him. I think he’s always had the arm strength to make the throws. It’s about anticipating it. It’s about being confident about where that ball is going to throw and pulling the trigger with confidence. He’s had the ability to throw it. Now he’s playing more on the clock, as we like to say, the timing of the throws and when they need to come out, when it gets to a secondary throw and when it gets to the point in the drop where he says, ‘I gotta tuck it and run.’ Anytime you’re playing on the road, you have to play with great poise. That’s going to start with us getting everybody on the same page. From there, it’s going to be ID’ing what they’re trying to defensively. They’re pretty defined on what they want to be in and how they want to attack you. It’s being able to see that pre-snap and say, O.K., here’s what it is, here’s where my answers are.”
• Air Force at Boise State: As the Falcons try to close in on a Mountain West Mountain Division title, the murmurs have begun about other programs perhaps luring Troy Calhoun away from the academy.
• North Carolina at Virginia Tech: No one has invented a word that can accurately measure the emotions at Frank Beamer’s last home game. The problem is that the Tar Heels aren’t short of motivation either; a win will secure an ACC title game berth.
• Purdue at Iowa: For as much as people wonder about the Hawkeyes, blowing the season here is a borderline unbelievable scenario.
• LSU at Ole Miss: You figure the Tigers might get a little angry after the last two weeks, but you also figure the Rebels know one Alabama slip-up may let them sneak into the SEC title game.
• Houston at Connecticut: Tom Herman’s club is on letdown watch. Bob Diaco has a .500 Huskies team scratching toward bowl eligibility after two straight wins and with the capacity to muck an offense up.
• Wake Forest at Clemson: The Tigers’ priorities: health, health and health, before the rivalry game against South Carolina and the ACC title game.
• USC at Oregon: Now this would be saying something if Clay Helton can get the Trojans a road win against an Oregon team that finally looks like Oregon should look.
• UCLA at Utah: The Pac-12 South is a mosh pit. Someone will come up for air at the end here.
• Northwestern at Wisconsin: What’s the prize for second place in the Big Ten West? A shoe buffer, right? I bet it’s a shoe buffer.
• Michigan State at Ohio State: The Spartans have a banged-up quarterback and an offensive line that has dealt with injuries all year. You wonder if this is the night the Buckeyes make an emphatic statement.
• Boston College vs. Notre Dame (at Fenway Park): This is on the Fighting Irish defense. The Eagles may frustrate DeShone Kizer and Co. for a spell, but if Steve Addazio’s team can’t score—and it hasn’t scored 20 points since the second game of the year—Boston College can’t come close
• Baylor at Oklahoma State: The Cowboys are outscoring teams, on average, by 30 points at home. Thirty! The point is, if the Bears’ Jarrett Stidham isn’t 100%, it’s not the place that augurs a feel-good afternoon.
• TCU at Oklahoma: Even with Trevone Boykin and Josh Doctson, I’m not convinced the Horned Frogs have enough. With their playoff fortunes in the balance, I suspect the Sooners can slow the former Heisman candidates a week after stymieing Baylor.
• Cal at Stanford: Will the Cardinal free-fall now that their national title hopes are kaput, or will they be recharged by rivals (Cal, then Notre Dame) and the opportunity to make the Pac-12 title game?
The hair-raising end
Welcome to Week 12, where many contenders have turnstiles disguised as football teams in their path. But some teams have a much more foreboding task. Ohio State, Michigan State, the Big 12’s remaining playoff hopefuls…they will feel the heat build beneath their cleats.
Because it’s win…or plunge into the fire.