Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables knew the Tigers had something special in freshman tackle Dexter Lawrence.
How special became apparent quickly in spring practice.
"In his very first scrimmage, he picked off a screen pass," Venables recalled.
"We had a little stunt, so he re-directs, gets his eyes up. Not only didn’t (the pass) hit him in the facemask and fall to the ground, but he catches it and, man, he was gone.
“(Wide receiver Hunter) Renfrow finally ran him down. That was the only bad thing about it – that he let Renfrow run him down. That showed us the moment is never too big for him.”
Lawrence, who grew up in suburban Raleigh, is the Next Big Thing. That’s true both literally and figuratively. He’s 340 pounds with 18 percent body fat. He has the quickness and balance of a linebacker and the power of a tropical storm.
Sounds like hyperbole? Ask one of the guys who has to block him all the time in practice.
“Dexter Lawrence is just a freak of nature. You don’t see a guy come in at 18 years old, weigh 340 pounds and have 20 percent body fat. It’s insane,” said Clemson center Jay Guillermo.
“To be that big and move like he does…Wow. He came in early and picked up college football really fast. He already had the work ethic, but he picked up the system and established himself as one of our top guys really fast. Not just from a physical standpoint, but mentally. You don’t see that very often.”
Lawrence, who attended Wake Forest High, was considered one of the top five prospects in last year’s recruiting class. Clemson was the first program to offer him a scholarship and beat out Florida, Ohio State and N.C. State to sign him.
Potential is one thing, productivity another. In his first college game, on the road at Auburn, Lawrence had 10 tackles, a sack and a pass breakup.
Heading into Saturday’s national semifinal against the Buckeyes, Lawrence has 75 tackles. His seven sacks set a Clemson freshman record. He was named ACC Defensive Freshman of the Year.
Lawrence’s gifts are such that fellow defensive tackle Carlos Watkins, a great college player in his own right, has frequently declared Lawrence a future No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft.
Venables wishes Watkins wouldn’t say that. But not because he finds it inaccurate. He just doesn’t want anything messing up this exceptional prodigy.
“People can regress,” Venable said. “Just like that you think, ‘What happened to so-and-so?’ ”
Not that Venables anticipates that happening with Lawrence. It’s not just his physical ability. It’s his intellect, his work ethic and his humility.
Recruiting visits are generally viewed as schools making sales pitches. Venables sees them more like a first date: You are viewing first hand how a player is at home, how he treats his family, how he pays respect.
That was a major selling point for Lawrence.
"You watch how they treat their mama. You’re asking questions to see the respect that they show. Are they waving her off or are they saying, ‘You’ll have to ask my mama.’ ” Venables recalled.
“You really see how she raised him in his humility, his respect, but also his toughness. He’s super coachable. We can get after him and (the response is) ‘Yes sir, I’ll get it fixed.’ That’s what the trust comes from.”
An example: Early in the spring defensive end Christian Wilkins told Lawrence to declare what Power Ranger he’d be. It’s a running joke on the defensive line, and he could have chosen blue or green.
Lawrence said he’d be the pink Ranger. That’s because nobody else would choose to be the pink Ranger. It won over the room.
In high school, Lawrence was a defensive end in a 3-4 formation. How did high school coaches try to block him?
“They’d bring the tackle, the guard and the running back,” Lawrence recalled.
They could have brought everyone on the roster, and it probably wouldn’t have mattered. That’s how thoroughly he dominated. But he wondered how that would translate to college football. It proved to be a smooth transition.
“Practices weren’t as tough as I thought they would be. I mean, they were tough because we have a great offensive line. The tempo was different from high school. Much different. But I adjusted,” Lawrence said.
“What I learned is even in practice, if you’re not ready, you get exposed. Never give up. Stay humble, but have confidence in yourself all the time.”
Lawrence chose a school carefully. In the same way Venables was scrutinizing how Lawrence would fit in at Clemson, Lawrence was evaluating how Clemson – and particularly the veteran defensive linemen – would fit with him.
“I wanted a school where I didn’t just learn from the coaches. I wanted to learn from other players as well,” Lawrence said. “I could tell with Carlos and Christian that they’d help you be a better football player and a better all-around person.
“I wanted to see who those people were. I could tell they were genuine.”
Lawrence chuckles whenever Watkins pronounces him the presumptive No. 1 pick. It’s fun and all, but who needs all that expectation?
“I’d love to be drafted first round,” Lawrence said. “It would be an honor to go anywhere.”