ARLINGTON, Texas — Amid the confetti shower, among celebrating teammates and between selfie photos, the tall, handsome, blond-haired kid weaved through this jubilant sea of orange and then, oh gosh, someone stuck a television camera in his face. Oh no, an interview. Within seconds, a half-dozen other reporters joined in to form a semi-circle around Trevor Lawrence, the 19-year-old Clemson quarterback and the man who’d just tore through Notre Dame in a 30–3 beatdown in the College Football Playoff semifinal. Lawrence politely answered four questions in the briefest possible way and before the fifth could be fully asked, he looked across the football field at AT&T Stadium and rushed away from media members with an apologetic goodbye. “I gotta go, y’all,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Lawrence is not often fazed or unnerved like this. He’s rarely if ever flummoxed, but maybe we’ve found a weakness: the media spotlight. The freshman proved again Saturday that he’s unflappable on the biggest of stages (there’s only one bigger and he gets that shot next week), accomplishing feats few rookie QBs ever have. But the postgame stage, the one with those bright TV cameras and noisy recorders, this isn’t for him. After all, this is a guy who, despite being the No. 1-ranked high school quarterback in the nation, committed to Clemson not with some gaudy video posted on social media or a flashy hat selection ceremony, but by calling a single recruiting reporter late one night. This is a kid who during the recruiting process often stayed quiet, keeping information within a “small, protected inner circle,” says a family friend. This is a player who held a high school all-star ceremony, not in a packed auditorium with community leaders and 1,200 classmates, but with his football team in a quiet little gathering. “I mean, the whole country would have come to that,” says Rusty Mansell, a 247Sports reporter who covered Lawrence’s sparkling high school career. “He’s a different dude.”
But on the field, against defensive backs four years his elder, defensive linemen bound for the NFL and, on this day, 40,000-plus thundering green-clad Irish fans, he’s too good to be this young, too focused for his age, too accurate for any player who just turned 19. No one really knows exactly how this is possible. A first-year player isn’t supposed to lead a team to a 14–0 record and into a national championship game by slicing through a top-20 defense like this: He was 27 of 39 for 327 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. He’s just one victory away from being only the second true freshman in college football history to lead his team to a national title, joining Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985. “It’s not a surprise because this is what he’s done his whole life,” says co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott.
Lawrence started in his 17th playoff game Saturday, the biggest of his career against the best opponent and in front of the largest crowd. The result was his best postseason line. None of the 16 previous playoff duels at Cartersville High in north Georgia topped his production against the Irish. His career numbers in the postseason are staggering: 59% completion percentage, 3,938 yards, 43 touchdowns, four interceptions, 15 wins and two losses. “He shines in those big games. He really does,” Clemson quarterback coach Brandon Streeter says. “What’s most impressive is his focus level when there’s so many distractions out there. Nothing rattles him.”
Well, maybe the media, but aside from those recorders and cameras, this guy is unruffled. “He’s just so poised and he’s 6-6,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “He just sees it. And he’s got a gift of an arm.” The Irish were the latest victims of it. He carved through a secondary that missed its best player, cornerback Julian Love, for long stretches because of a head injury. Lawrence threw two scoring strikes to Justyn Ross against Love’s replacement, and Tee Higgins made an acrobatic grab in the back of the end zone just before halftime for the real knockout punch. A defense missing projected NFL first-round selection Dexter Lawrence (suspended for a failed drug test) swarmed, stuffed and stripped Notre Dame (12–1) so badly that social media buzzed with criticism for the playoff selection committee’s decision to include the Irish. “Dexter was a great loss,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables says amid the postgame hysteria. “Guys stepped up like we hoped they would. Albert was awesome.”
Albert Huggins, the journeyman senior who replaced Lawrence, emerged as a secondary hero in this one, even if he did finish with just one tackle. He filled Dexter Lawrence’s shoes as the anchor of a squad that held the Irish to just 88 yards rushing (2.5 per carry) and 248 overall. And afterward, the questions were mostly about this game’s primary star, the other Lawrence. “He’s so young,” Huggins said of his quarterback. “For him to go out in this game, a playoff game like this, and dominate it like he did, I applaud him.” Trevor’s performance justified one of the boldest coaching moves in college football, this season and any other season: Swinney benching veteran QB Kelly Bryant, and his 16–2 record as a starter, for a first-year player.
Guys like Huggins, the grizzled veterans on this team, admitted after Saturday’s game that Swinney’s decision was, yes, risky, but was also accurate. “Up to that point, he had shown us that he’d earned the right to start that game,” Elliott said. “We didn’t know the fallout afterward with Kelly deciding to transfer. At the end of the day, that was a defining moment for our team and for our offense. Now they’re standing on this stage getting ready to play the biggest fourth quarters of the season.”
The Tigers get Alabama in Santa Clara, Calif., in a rubber match of championship games, two teams that split title bouts in 2015 (Bama won) and 2016 (Clemson won). “I’ve just been trying to soak everything up and enjoy it,” Lawrence said in his brief on-field interview. “You never know when you’re going to get another chance like this.” Nick Saban and the Tide have 10 days to accomplish a goal: be the first this season to rattle this freshman quarterback. No one’s done it, not even his own ruthless defense. Lawrence was chewed out as a true freshman in his first spring practice, chastised during his inaugural fall camp this August and chased all over the field by NFL talent on Clemson’s defensive line. “There have been times we’ve gotten on him pretty hard and he responds the right way and learns from it,” Streeter says. “I’ve never seen him rattled. Ever.”
Media day in California is Saturday morning. Buckle up, Trevor.