The bookend pass-rushers at Clemson are different and unique players on the field. Both should come off the board on the first night of the draft. They spent an afternoon in the film room to break down their final collegiate game: the national championship
When Kevin Dodd was a high schooler growing up in Greer, South Carolina (population 27,167), he would attend state tournament basketball games to watch a star power forward from Daniel High School (Central, SC) named Shaq Lawson. “I watched him play a lot,” Dodd says. “‘Some player,’ I thought—like a big-time guy. He was pretty special at basketball.”
One day, at an area football camp, Dodd spotted Lawson. Dodd was eager to talk about what he’d seen from him on the hardwood.
“Yeah, and then we had to do up-downs because he was talking [when coaches were talking],” Lawson says.
Both men laugh as the story is told.
“It’s crazy, we both started out at football camp with each other, and to think where we’re at now, being [presumptive] first-round picks,” says Lawson. “We didn’t know a thing about football. It’s crazy just looking back at it, now.”
Dodd and Lawson, of course, wound up being bookend edge players on a Clemson team that reached the national championship. They had taken similar paths since that high school camp. Both attended Hargrave Military Academy for a year after high school. Both rode the bench early in their Clemson careers, watching other future NFL draft picks play ahead of them. Last season was the first time either started fulltime. Both are projected to go in Round 1 later this month.
Sitting between them in one of Clemson’s film rooms, I ask a trivia question: Who was the last defensive end tandem to be drafted top-20 in the same year? Neither knows.
Answer: North Carolina’s Greg Ellis and Vonnie Holliday, 1998.
(Lawson wants to know where these two got picked: Ellis eighth overall to Dallas, Holliday 19th to Green Bay.)
We’re queuing up Clemson’s title game loss to Alabama. Dodd has watched it before. Lawson is seeing it for the first time.
Both were highly productive in it. Dodd had three sacks and five tackles for loss—staggering numbers for two or three games, let alone one. Lawson, playing on an injured MCL, had two sacks and four tackles. He didn’t practice all week and was receiving extra treatment right up until game time.
I tell him that if I were in his position, with my first-round draft status on the line, in all honesty I might not go out there on a bum knee – not in a game I’m playing for free.
“That wasn’t even a question at all,” Lawson says. “I wasn’t even thinking about it. I was just thinking about going to win the National Championship. So, even if I only had one leg, I was going to go out there and play.”
As the film rolls, Dodd and Lawson settle in. For the next hour-and-a-half, lessons are taught and stories are told.
* * *
DODD: This play right here, second-and-10, there was a high chance of running the ball. So I was locking in on my [offensive] tackle, reading my keys. He blocked down. I squeezed down, closed the air out, basically reading the tackle and the quarterback conjunctionally. I’m playing a game between the tackle and the QB. I put my hands out wide to stay big in that hole, trying to keep the quarterback’s read difficult. He gave the ball and I just closed down to go get it.
BENOIT: What part of the right tackle’s hip is telling you where to go?
DODD: I’m looking for his outside hip. If it goes down, I’m down. If it kicks back, I’m up because it’s a high-hat (i.e. pass-blocking) situation.
BENOIT: These guys came in with a little bit of an up-tempo approach. How prepared were you for that?
DODD: They felt like we didn’t have a lot of depth and so tempo was going to kill us. But we did a great job throughout the week preparing. But it’s kind of hard when you look to the sideline waiting for the call to come in.
BENOIT: Third-and-9. Shaq, you’re out of the game.
LAWSON: They were monitoring my snaps to see what I was capable of doing. This part of early game, I felt like I couldn’t go. My knee was hurting bad and I came out a couple plays. I felt like I couldn’t move because I wasn’t very comfortable with the brace yet.
BENOIT: Have you worn a brace at any other point in your life?
LAWSON: No, sir.
BENOIT: So, here’s the third-and-9, it’s kind of uneventful.
DODD: I’m trying a stunt, basically they were sitting on it.
BENOIT: Is the D-tackle a little late getting around you?
DODD: Yeah, he’s coming off the ball a little slow. They weren’t even keying on him. They slid right to me. A stunt is not going to work against an O-line slide. Ideally, you want to stunt to the man-blocking side (the side away from the slide). Basically, this play was dead before it started.
* * *
BENOIT: OK, third-and-7, a little later, you could probably call this the second true pass rush situation in the game except on this one you’re both zone coverage droppers.
LAWSON: We dropped at least three or four times [each game], so we both are very comfortable at dropping. I’m dropping—what was this call, Kevin? Toledo? I was dropping over the middle. I was a middle gut dropper. I have to play the crossing route that was coming around, so I ran with the crossers. I knew Alabama loved crossing routes and this was what we were going to try to take away from them.
• INSIDE THE FILM ROOM WITH JARED GOFF: During Cal-Stanford, the quarterback showed the subtleties and savvy of a future franchise QB. Just weeks before the draft, he broke down the game film for The MMQB.
* * *
BENOIT: So, here’s Derrick Henry’s 50-yard touchdown run. Kevin, I think a lot of casual fans watching this would think you got beat here. But the more I watched it, I think—and tell me if I’m wrong—I think you’ve got a gap responsibility inside and someone else is supposed to be filling the gap that Henry ran through.
DODD: One of the guys is supposed to come over the top, I got the B-gap.
LAWSON: Is it supposed to be the safety?
BENOIT: If it’s the safety, then who would have outside contain?
DODD: I feel like the outside linebacker is supposed to keep coming over. I feel like No. 10 is supposed to and No. 44 is supposed to. Their release is just too early. They’re supposed to keep scraping. They’re just trying to make a play. No. 10 was just trying to make a play, right here.
BENOIT: So No. 10, he can’t allow himself to get down in the trenches this quickly.
DODD: Yeah, not until something clears.
* * *
BENOIT: Alright, Shaq, here’s your first sack of the game. Take us through this one.
LAWSON: It’s a zone read, the quarterback had the option. Just either hand it off or pass it. I saw him with the ball in his hands and I knew he was going to pass it because he wasn’t a running quarterback. You had to make him run. I knew there was an opportunity to make a play right here. That moment actually made me feel better, I started getting a rhythm after this play.
BENOIT: Do you do a dance? We didn’t get it on film here.
DODD: Yeah, he does.
LAWSON: Oh yeah, I do a dance. It’s called Handcuffs.
BENOIT: This must be Alabama’s coaches film. Usually, the hometown cameraman will let it roll a little, to capture the celebration.
LAWSON: Yeah this ain’t our camera!
BENOIT: Alright, few plays later. Kevin, it’s the first of many tackles for loss you get. You go under the block to get there. I’m curious how you’re coached, how you make that decision. I’ve been told if you go under blocks, you’d better be right.
DODD: I was slanting to the B-gap and I saw the guard coming towards me so I immediately penetrated. My D-tackle did the same thing. He sees the center so he penetrates, trying to get to the A-gap.
* * *
BENOIT: This is the very next play of the game. It’s going to be a sack for you, Kevin. You get to go up against the right guard in this case.
DODD: I’m stunting/slanting to the B-gap. Ideally, I’ve got a two-way go right here. I felt like I could beat this guard. He fanned out. Really, I wanted to knock him back and get into that A-gap. Just close the air out of that pocket, but I know my nose guard is the garbage man here and he’s going to make me right. So I just know if I can beat this guy around the edge real quick, the nose guard can help.
BENOIT: The other part of this play, and I’ll ask you Shaq, the secondary did a good job—a five-man rush, Cover 3 zone concept. How aware are you defensive linemen of the coverage call? Is that even of concern to you?
LAWSON: The main thing is we want to know if they’re in man or zone. That dictates our rush. If they’re in man coverage, we’re going to come with it. We’re going to be as efficient as possible… try to help them out a little bit and make sure the QB can’t throw a quick pass, backside shoulder pass or something. We’re going to get in those rush lanes. If they’re in zone, we know we’ve got a lot of time. We can jump around with our rush.
DODD: Yeah, that’s how we think of it. [And sometimes] if it’s in man, we’ve got to peel out (and cover) the running back.
BENOIT: Alright, let’s see what next. Oh yeah, Shaq, your goal-line run-stuff. When you entered this room earlier you griped that you only had two plays in this game. You’re not counting the one we’re about to see here. But teams that are thinking about drafting you, they’re counting this one.
LAWSON: I’m in the 6-technique playing the cutoff block. I knew Alabama had No. 16 matched up on us during the game. He was a little soft, I knew he was soft. Like our coach says, ‘You should never let a tight end block you.’ We feel disrespected if a tight end blocks us. So I just mad-hatted him and knew he was intimidated and wanted no part of the action down on the goal-line.
BENOIT: Kevin, you’re probably wishing they ran the ball to your side. We’d be talking about you on this play. You guys both got matchups on tight ends. You penetrated soundly. It would be demolition if the ball had come to your side, too.
DODD: That definitely would have been a tackle for loss. It wouldn’t have gotten close to the goal-line.
BENOIT: Would you ever say in the meeting room, Hey coaches, you ought to grade me for a tackle for loss here. Because I can’t control where the ball goes, but look what I did!
DODD: No. If you say that in our meeting room, he’s going to look at you like you’re crazy.
* * *
BENOIT: Shaq, on this next play, look at you get off this left tackle’s block for a late sack. That’s pretty tenacious.
LAWSON: I knew he was just aggressive so I had to keep working my hands. We had great coverage on the backend, really got me the time.
BENOIT: How much of this is technique for you, Shaq, versus being an athlete and improvising?
DODD: Roll the tape again, let me show you something. That right there? That’s Mommy and Daddy.
DODD: That’s all genetics. You can’t coach that right there. Shaq hit him with the outside club. That’s an athlete going POP!
* * *
BENOIT: This next play they went max protection. You think, OK, six or seven men blocking and in this case only four defenders rushing. That ought to be a win for the pass protection. But with these O-line slides, they still wind up leaving the tight end on the defensive end, so it’s max protection but with a total mismatch. I can’t believe how often this happens. Have you guys noticed anything like that?
LAWSON: Yes, because sometimes in max protection, they have us one-on-one with the backs.
DODD: Sometimes, blockers think they have so much protection help on the outside and they kind of relax a little bit and end up getting beat up off the edge. I made a couple running backs and offensive tackles trip up on each other this season because [they’re not used to blocking together].
BENOIT: Next, do you guys remember this play? We’ll watch it. I’m just curious if this is a type of play a defensive end remembers from a 70-snap game.
LAWSON: Whoa! Ben [Boulware] got put on the ground like that? Ooohh, T.J. Green, too! Oooh, all of them got laid out! [Turns to Dodd] Bro, I don’t remember this.
DODD: Oh, I remember this.
LAWSON: Wooooo—man down.
DODD: All of them got laid out.
LAWSON: Whoa, Austin [Bryant] got... [Laughs. Then claps three times.]
LAWSON: I remember the play but I don’t remember everybody—all three of them got laid out!
DODD: Coaches were pissed off.
LAWSON: Boy, they all got laid out!
Look at how Austin’s body just folded, bro. Watch Austin’s body. Watch his body. That’s crazy! [Shaq rolls the film a few more times, issuing repetitious onomatopoeias as defenders get pancaked 1-2-3. Boom Boom….Boom! Pow Pow….Pow!]
* * *
BENOIT: Alright, second half. Shaq, you’re at 3-technique. Talk about playing that. Is this something you think you can do in the NFL?
LAWSON: Yes sir. I played it in my Hargrave [Military Academy] career. I played D-tackle. I played it a lot at Clemson. We used this defense a lot, this ‘bear front.’
DODD: We want to be balanced up in ‘bear.’ We don’t want them to know where the pressure is coming from.
BENOIT: On this next play they’re going to get a touchdown off of you. This is the one where Lane Kiffin had his arms in the air before the ball was even caught.
BENOIT: On this play, Shaq you had an excellent club move. Kevin, you redirected inside. You both won. And they still get a long touchdown. Is this demoralizing?
DODD: After that, you’re pissed off because they basically got an easy touchdown. But play another down. We still had a lot of time to play a lot of football.
BENOIT: What occurs to me: they really got you on only four plays—special teams aside. Four plays were big in the game, probably the difference.
DODD: We still want to win it, right now. Still think we should win the game.
LAWSON: This is my first time ever putting this film on. I wasn’t planning on watching it.
DODD: I’ve had meetings with NFL teams and stuff, so I had to watch it.
LAWSON: Certain plays for me, yeah, but not the whole film study.
• INSIDE THE FILM ROOM WITH JARRAN REED: The Alabama prospect talks X’s and O’s to help explain how he became one of college football’s best two-gap linemen, and why some other parts of his game are lacking.
* * *
BENOIT: Kevin, here’s the play where you got a sack and drew a hold. Right tackle No. 76 had a lot of trouble with you. Did you ever look in his eyes during the course of the game?
DODD: A couple times.
LAWSON: Fear. I could see it on an earlier field goal—he had fear in his eyes. He looked like he didn’t want to play. He was just there to say he was a part of the team. Tried to block. It was just a long night for him, a bad night for him.
DODD: [Laughs] Shaq was telling them.
BENOIT: Kevin, I’ll ask you what I asked Shaq a bit ago. Have you played a lot of 3-technique? You know, a lot of people compare you to Michael Bennett of Seattle, a defensive end, 3-tech combo player.
LAWSON: He looks like him, too. You look like him, bro!
DODD: [Laughs (hard)] I can play a 3-technique. This system, it helps the D-linemen a lot. And like Shaq said earlier, we played the 3-technique a lot at Hargrave.
* * *
BENOIT: Next play, right tackle No. 76 takes Kevin to the ground. (Flagged for holding.) Did either of you have a takedown as textbook as this?
LAWSON: I didn’t even see that, bro.
DODD: I was going to make that play, too. He’s leaning way too heavy and oversetting it and that’s why I’m going to take the inside all the time.
LAWSON: That was their weakness. These [Alabama offensive tackles] don’t kick-step straight back. They kick out. They give up the inside every time they pass block.
DODD: I’m just going to counter whatever he gives me. If he sits back real heavy, I’ll run him into the quarterback. Right here, he’s coming at me super aggressive but running right past me. The ball is on the inside. Where is [this offensive tackle] going?
BENOIT: Had you seen him over-extending like this on film?
DODD: Oh yeah. I thought he was going to try to correct it. They were super aggressive, and on their zone reads, zone blocks, these blockers run to the sideline basically. They want you to run to them to try to keep the thing contained. But Coach helped us, he said you knock them back and play underneath them, you can make the play in the B-gap. But like I said, I just read that on film and you would think they would try to get that corrected before they came into the game.
* * *
BENOIT: This next play was the big third-and-11 conversion—the biggest play in the game so far. Is it frustrating because you guys are both dropping into zone coverage here? You guys talked about it earlier, you do this zone drop three or four times a game. But it’s a big third-and-11. Is it frustrating at all?
LAWSON: Yeah. When you know you can beat your man and you really wanted to make the play coming off the ball. You got them in a passing situation and you’re dropping them. This kind of thing is what pisses me off—we should be rushing. But [regarding the outcome of the play] this kind of thing we can live to play another down, because he’s covering him, it’s not like it’s a blown coverage.
* * *
BENOIT: We’re getting down to final few plays. Something for both of you—look how long this camera runs before the snap. We’re seeing everyone standing around waiting to play.
LAWSON: You’ve got nothing to do but sit and talk trash at this point. I mean, I was just having enough of this left tackle all game. He’s a guy that likes talking, wasn’t showing any results really. I’m just telling him I wish I was 100 percent out here because it’s been a long day for him.
BENOIT: Alright, final drive. This is the long catch on the short throwback.
DODD: Ah, he’s gone. T.J. is about to catch him. [He doesn’t.]
BENOIT: Look at Kiffin up top. Look at him run. Kiffin can run, now. Shaq, I don’t think there’s a D-end who can change this outcome on this sort of play, but maybe you feel differently?
LAWSON: I knew it was a boot and I was going to the box. [The quarterback] just got it out. An incredible play he did. He got it out. Before this part of the game, he was holding the ball. He really got it out this time.
* * *
BENOIT: Kevin, you’ve had a very productive game—a dominant game. But this next play, the one that essentially sealed the win for Alabama, I’m guessing you’ve thought about this a few times.
DODD: A shi…
LAWSON: [Laughing] I remember this play.
DODD: Yeah, I remember this play.
LAWSON: [Laughing] You cut, you’re a dead duck. After this play I was like, bro.
DODD: I shouldn’t have left my feet. I just tried to close down. I was trying to make a play. I took that angle that I thought he was going to go and just turned around.
DODD: Where’s my pursuit? [Mock grunt.]
BENOIT: Kevin, the NFL’s single-game sack record is held by Derrick Thomas, he had seven against Seattle in 1990. At the end of that game, he had a play like the one you just had. He barely missed the sack and they scored a game-winning touchdown. And whenever someone asked him, ‘Which sack do you remember most?’
LAWSON: And it’s the one he missed?
BENOIT: Yep, he’d say the one he missed.
DODD: It’s a production business, that’s what it’s all about.
BENOIT: You had, what, three sacks and three tackles for loss in this one?
LAWSON: He had five tackles for loss.
BENOIT: Was it five?!
DODD: I don’t count.
BENOIT: Well I can count. Three plus five is eight.
BENOIT: Eight negative yardage plays in one game. That’s Derrick Thomas territory.
LAWSON: I count him [snickering] Man he’s counting the stats! We’re counting stats! Because we’ll be saying to each other during the game, ‘Hey how many we got right now, bro?’
LAWSON: We’re big about production, though. We love that.
DODD: Yeah, we love production.
* * *
BENOIT: Last thing here. I’m going to read to you your ‘bottom line’ scouting report from NFL.com. I’m just the messenger here. Kevin, I’ll read yours. Shaq, you’re next. Kevin, your NFL comparison—Michael Bennett, we talked about that. The rest of the report reads: “The arrow is pointed up for Dodd, who finished the season with a streak of five consecutive games with a sack. Dodd already looks the part of an NFL defensive end and his desire to make plays coupled with his physical traits and talent should have him shooting up draft boards. His lack of college snaps could preclude him from being ‘proready,’ but his instincts and football intelligence should expedite the learning process.” Kevin, do you have a rebuttal?
DODD: What was that last line? Would expedite the process?
BENOIT: Yes. “His instincts and football intelligence should expedite the learning process.”
DODD: I agree with that, but a lot of my [lack of early] snaps were due to this program and opportunity. Other than my freshman year, I didn’t get an opportunity until 2015. I’m pro ready. There’s no doubt. There’s no question. I’m coming. Coming into the pros with a lot of confidence and ready to play and a lot to prove. I’m pro ready and I’m ready for that team to go ahead and draft me. I’m going to be home running.”
BENOIT: Okay, Shaq Lawson, your NFL.com player comparison is Courtney Upshaw. That doesn’t mean they think you’ll be him, just that you’re similar stylistically: “Shaq Lawson: Productive backup for two years before putting together an All-American season in his first year as a full-time starter. Lawson is built like a full-grown man and combines his instincts, toughness and power to fill up a stat sheet and set an early tone. Lawson's frame and game are easily translatable to the NFL, but his average athleticism and pass rush skills will likely have teams viewing him as a 34 edge setter or a 4-3 base end. Lawson may also have value as 34 defensive tackle in an upfield scheme.” Rebuttal, sir?
LAWSON: Average athleticism? A guy at 270 can jump 10 feet, run a 4.7 flat, that’s average? I don’t pay attention to none of that, man. I know I’m athletic. I’ve been doing athletics all my life. I don’t pay attention to all that stuff. The teams know what they’re going to get in me. They’re going to know what kind of player I am, how athletic I am. I proved at all my workouts, the combine and pro day how athletic I was.
With that, the film session is over. After rattling off a few inside jokes and shoutouts for the cameras, both men say thanks for the opportunity. “Andy was trying to dis us there at the end, Shaq,” Dodd jokes as they make for the exit. Lawson makes one final potshot comment about his “average athleticism.” Then both exit, waiting for the night the commissioner will call their names.
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