The best is yet to come for Clemson's Dexter Lawrence—and that's frighteningly awesome

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Fiesta Bowl preview: No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Ohio State
1:55 | College Football
Fiesta Bowl preview: No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Ohio State
Tuesday December 27th, 2016

Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence doesn’t want to go quite as far as the capri-pant look teammate Ben Boulware rocked at ACC Media Days, but the Tigers’ top freshman would like a little more variety in his wardrobe. “I try to have some swag,” Lawrence said, “but it’s kind of tough to find anything.”

Lawrence isn’t a suit guy. He doesn’t need anything fancy. But he’d like to someday expand his wardrobe beyond sweats. Unfortunately, at 6’5” and 342 pounds with a size 16 foot, off-the-rack options don’t exist for Lawrence. Fortunately, the reason Lawrence can’t find anything remotely swagged out is also the reason he should someday have the means to have his clothes custom made. “I can pull off a lot of stuff,” Lawrence said. “I just want it to fit.”

Lawrence isn’t kidding. He might be one of the only people on the planet who can pull off full-body pink Spandex at his weight. Seriously. When teammate Christian Wilkins decided Tigers defensive linemen would be the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers for Halloween and threw the Pink Ranger costume at Lawrence, he created an image that should fuel the nightmares of ACC offensive linemen and quarterbacks. That guy is that big and looks like that in Spandex? “Nobody will ever believe this,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables thought to himself when the Power Rangers showed up at his house. So he snapped a picture that eventually found its way into cyberspace.

(There’s also video.)

Clemson center Jay Guillermo, who has to block Lawrence every practice, still marvels at his teammate’s physique and the grace with which he moves it. “He’s 18 years old. Like 345 pounds. And 18% body fat,” Guillermo said. “It’s freakish. It’s not fair. He is an absolute freak of nature.”

Lawrence used those gifts immediately at Clemson. Heading into Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, he ranks fourth on the team in tackles with 74—an astounding total for a freshman defensive tackle—second on the team in sacks with seven and first on the team in quarterback pressures with 20.

His teammates expected this almost immediately after Lawrence arrived on campus in January after graduating early from Wake Forest (N.C.) High. They were virtually certain it would happen following physical testing this summer. Guillermo isn’t exaggerating about Lawrence’s body fat percentage. Though the Power Rangers photo is proof enough, Lawrence had his body composition measured in August using a Bod Pod. Around the same time, he also ran the 40-yard dash. Teammates huddled back at the start line, anxious for Lawrence to return and tell them how fast he ran. Their eyes had told them Lawrence had moved unusually fast for a man his size, but they still couldn’t believe it when Lawrence relayed the time: 4.9 seconds. “Jaw dropping,” fellow defensive tackle Carlos Watkins said. Feel free to adjust for college campus 40-time deflation. It doesn’t matter. Lawrence can flat fly for a guy who is seven pounds heavier than former Clemson star William “The Refrigerator” Perry’s listed weight when he played for the Chicago Bears.

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Lawrence inevitably will draw comparisons to Perry and the late Chester McGlockton, another massive Tiger. But Lawrence has the raw material to be better than either one. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Lawrence can already bench press 225 pounds 32 times. Wilkins saw that power as soon as Lawrence hit the practice field. “It’s just crazy what he can do at his size and his weight,” Wilkins said. “You’ll see him in one-on-one pass pro just drop [Clemson offensive guards] Tyrone Crowder or Taylor Hearn. Those aren’t little guys. Those are big dudes.” Huge dudes, actually. Crowder is 6’2” and 340 pounds. Hearn is 6’5” and 325. “He’s turning them and twisting them,” Wilkins said. “He has such a high ceiling. As good as he is, he still has such a long way to go. It’s going to be scary to see what he can do here in a few years.”

As much as a 342-pounder can fit under one’s wing, Wilkins has had Lawrence under his since Lawrence came on an official visit last year. It was Wilkins who reminded Lawrence that he could eat two steaks because the school was paying and chances like that don’t come along every day. Wilkins also helped Lawrence adjust to life away from home. Wilkins is only a sophomore, but three years at a Connecticut prep school had already taught him to live independently. Lawrence had a more conventional high school experience, so college life was a much bigger change. Wilkins is always happy to offer advice or provide a sounding board for Lawrence. “Once or twice a week we have a little date night,” Wilkins said. “We’ll go to Sonic and get a Smoothie. On our cheat day on Sunday, we’ll go to Bojangles and get 20 pieces of chicken and just eat them between us.” (We’ll pause now to imagine these two guys as 650 combined pounds of future NFL defensive linemen.)

Wilkins might be the ideal mentor for Lawrence. He also made an immediate impact as a freshman and looks like a future first-rounder. Watkins, a fifth-year senior, also has helped bring Lawrence along. “They call me pops,” Watkins said of Lawrence and Wilkins. “And they’re like my sons.” The family has made life miserable for opposing offenses. Lawrence, Wilkins and Watkins have combined for 32 tackles for loss, and they can stuff the run or chase a quarterback. But Watkins wonders if his youngest truly understands how special he can be. “He really doesn’t know what he has yet,” Watkins said. “He’s just a little baby. It’s hard for people to realize that, but he doesn’t know. Once he gets it all together, it’s really going to be trouble for offensive linemen.” Watkins has an idea where this might lead. “He can potentially be the No. 1 pick in the draft,” Watkins said.

Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver, another member of the class of 2017 who racked up 23 tackles for loss as a freshman, probably will challenge Lawrence for that distinction. If Lawrence wants to fulfill Watkins’s prophecy, he’ll have to develop his natural gifts. Guillermo, the Tigers’ center, doesn’t expect Lawrence to coast on his genetics. “He still works hard. He works just like everyone else,” Guillermo said. “And that’s what makes him so special.”

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Lawrence will have two more seasons to aim for the top spot on the draft board, but he can take another step by shining in his first appearance on college football’s biggest stage. “When you have great talent and skill plus great work ethic and character, you usually become a superstar,” Swinney said. “That’s kind of where he’s heading.”

If Lawrence gets there, he’ll be able to afford an entire closet full of clothes designed specifically for his freakish frame. Until then, he’ll have to wear whatever fits. “I don’t think there’s any hope for him,” Clemson’s Boulware said. “When you’re [that size], it’s hard to look good. He’s going to have to suffer for a couple more years.”

A random ranking

To honor the late George Michael, we rank his top songs (solo and with Wham!)

1. Faith

2. Careless Whisper

3. Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me (with Elton John)

4. Wake Me Up (Before You Go-Go)

5. One More Try

6. I Knew You Were Waiting (with Aretha Franklin)

7. Last Christmas

8. Kissing a Fool

9. Freedom ’90

10. Monkey

First-and-10

1. Connecticut fired coach Bob Diaco on Monday, but the man with the best hair in college football will remain on the payroll for another week. Why? Because on Jan. 2 his buyout drops from $5 million to $3.4 million. Diaco went 11–26 in three seasons, but his tenure at UConn will be more fondly remembered for his ambitious ideas.

• He created a rivalry trophy for UConn-UCF, the Civil ConFLiCT, that UCF players left on the field after winning this year.

• He once suggested the American Athletic Conference seek a television contract with Nickelodeon to get the youth hooked on the majesty of “Power Six” football.

Nickelodeon, by the way, is doing just fine without sports—even if Richard Deitsch’s kids are still too young to teach him that it’s Blaze and the Monster Machines.

2. Lane Kiffin told SI’s Pete Thamel on Friday that he plans to hire Baylor’s Kendal Briles as his offensive coordinator. Briles, the son of former Baylor head coach Art Briles, is the first member of his father’s staff to land a new job.

It will be interesting to see how many of the other Baylor assistants can get jobs after they were tarred by the scandal that resulted in the dismissals of Art Briles, president Kenneth Starr and athletic director Ian McCaw. Though the Baylor-commissioned report by law firm Pepper Hamilton mentioned “coaches” being involved in covering up sexual assault, Art Briles was the only coach fired. Baylor officials have repeatedly said that none of the members of the current staff was implicated in the report or they also would have been fired.

The younger Briles likely would have landed a higher profile coordinator job if not for the scandal, and Kiffin’s FAU program looks to be a halfway house of sorts for people trying to repair their reputations. Kiffin himself needs to prove he can succeed as a head coach after none of his previous three tries worked. Quarterback DeAndre Johnson, who signed with FAU earlier this month, was dismissed from Florida State in 2015 after he punched a woman in a bar. Johnson had been playing at East Mississippi Community College.

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3. I wrote a column last week that suggested redshirting freshmen be allowed to play in their teams’ bowl games without burning those redshirts. Football coaches would like to see this happen as well, but as part of a broader rule. The members of the American Football Coaches Association would like a rule change that allows freshmen to play in up to four games and still redshirt. This would eliminate the occasional invention of an injury to get a medical redshirt for a player who has played in less than 30% of his team’s games. It also might help the redshirting players fare better in the classroom and in the meeting room. Freshmen who play tend to be more engaged academically than their redshirting counterparts, so having the carrot of being able to play late in the season might keep some freshmen locked in.

4. After averaging 37.8 yards a kick in NC State’s 41–17 Independence Bowl win against Vanderbilt, Wolfpack punter A.J. Cole appears to have a date with the barber. (His best one-game average is 54.5 yards on four punts against Wake Forest earlier this season.)

5. Washington State coach Mike Leach said Monday that he believes Cougars quarterback Luke Falk will return for his senior season.

6. The Hawaii football team’s gift to the college football-loving world was this insane fake punt during a 52–35 Hawaii Bowl win against Middle Tennessee on Christmas Eve.

7. That feeling when your program remains perfect in bowl games.

O.K., so Old Dominion’s Bahamas Bowl win against Eastern Michigan was also its first bowl appearance in program history. Still, a trip to the Bahamas and a win are a pretty unbeatable combo.

8. Of course he remembered the “champions of the west” part.

9. SI’s Lindsay Schnell wrote an oral history of Boise State’s epic win against Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl—which took place 10 years ago Sunday. The Broncos knew the Statue of Liberty two-point conversion that ultimately won them the game would work. The touchdown play that preceded it? Not so much. If you’d like to hear the former Broncos tell the story, Lindsay also recorded a podcast version.

 

10. If you were on Bobby Bowden’s Christmas card list back in late 1950s or early 1960s, this is what you’d find in your mailbox.

What’s eating Andy?

She’s probably better off.

What’s Andy eating?

I had almost reached my destination when I saw the smoke. It billowed across Buford Highway and seemed out of place early on a Sunday afternoon. It smelled faintly of barbecue, but the volume seemed far too great for a restaurant. As I drove past the sprawling Duluth, Ga., complex that looked a little like a place where they might build missiles, the horror washed over me. This was the place where frozen barbecue gets cooked.

It’s called Suzanna’s Kitchen, and while I’m sure Suzanna is a perfectly nice person, barbecue wasn’t meant to be cooked in thousand-pound batches and vacuum sealed into 20-pound packages so it can live for months in a grocery store’s freezer. Barbecue is meant to be eaten as soon as it is cooked, which is why the best places open when the meat is done and close when they run out. Sure, the average person doesn’t have 16 hours to smoke a pork shoulder, but buying frozen barbecue isn’t the solution. There are plenty of reasonably priced meats that can be cooked quickly and taste wonderful. Cook those instead. Then visit your local barbecue joint for a fix. The plumes of smoke pouring out of Suzanna’s told me this advice is not being heeded.

I wasn’t in Duluth for mass-production barbecue, though. I’d come to find a Chinese restaurant in a strip mall. Masterpiece has been called the best Chinese food in metro Atlanta and possibly the best in the South. The chefs cook Sichuan style, which means some of the dishes are so hot that they’ll leave the lips tingling. Despite the location, this is not a place to order the General Tsos Chicken with fried rice and an egg roll. It is, however, the perfect place to remember that not everyone is content to mass produce the same old slop.

Andy Staples

While I waited for my Dong-po pork and a sichuan beef pot, I glanced down at my phone. A friend had pointed to a story in The New Yorker called “Our Automated Future.” I clicked and read about new advances in artificial intelligence that won’t create Skynet but probably will create another industrial revolution. Many of our industries will be disrupted, and a lot of us will have to adjust to stay employed.

Andy Staples

The staff at Masterpiece probably won’t have to adjust, though. No one has invented the robot that understands why blocks of perfectly cooked pork belly swimming in a dark, nutty wine sauce satisfy so thoroughly. No machine can imagine how that sauce and that pork feel when cradled in a forkful of soft rice. And while the robots seem perfectly suited to take over the cooking of the pulled pork on the other side of Buford Highway, they probably couldn’t make that beef pot. Their programming would tell them that the average diner doesn’t want his mouth to throb after each bite. But their circuitry wouldn’t understand that tender, hearty beef in sauce that lights the mouth ablaze also lights the soul.

The hot green tea couldn’t quite calm my taste buds, but it didn’t matter. Every bite struck a blow for humanity.

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