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What if Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence had decided to play basketball? Well, it almost happened.

Clemson DL Dexter Lawrence recaps touchdown run

Clemson football DT Dexter Lawrence rushed for a touchdown against Louisville
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Clemson football DT Dexter Lawrence rushed for a touchdown against Louisville

From five-star standout at Wake Forest High School to All-American candidate at Clemson, Dexter Lawrence has developed into one of the nation’s top defensive lineman. He likely is a first-team All-ACC selection this season and first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.

It almost never happened.

Four weeks into summer drills in 2013, Wake Forest coach Reggie Lucas could not find Lawrence among the prospective players on his practice field. Then he learned that Lawrence was not interested in playing football, instead opting for his first love: basketball.

Lawrence was completing another summer of AAU basketball, and, frankly, had become a little disenchanted with football. At 6-foot-3 and 280 pounds by high school, Lawrence already had been expelled for one season of Pop Warner youth football for being too large. By North Carolina athletic rules, Lawrence also was not permitted to play football during the sixth grade.

“I thought I was a natural baller,” Lawrence recalls of his basketball skills.

Finally, Lucas paid a couple of visits to Lawrence’s home, fully understanding that the football quick-sell would need to be made on Mom, Julia Parker. Lucas learned that Lawrence had little to no interest in playing on the Wake Forest junior varsity.

“Well, we’ll give you a chance at varsity,” Parker recalls Lucas saying.

Lawrence’s attitude changed, almost immediately.

Then came the season-opener against Durham Jordan. On the game’s first play, according to Lucas, Lawrence toppled the center onto his back and smothered the quarterback in the backfield.

“Ever since that play, he fell in love with football,” Lucas says.

Big and athletic

Even though he was a mere 6 pounds, 9 ounces and 22 inches in length at birth, Lawrence quickly developed into an unusually large kid. The tendency, according to Parker, is for overweight kids to become lazy. Not so with her son, who was much more enamored with pickup basketball games than video challenges.

While young Lawrence endured the “cracks” from classmates about his size, he remained steadfast in his pursuit of athletics. He was faster than all of his “little” friends up until middle school. And more agile.

“If they could jump over a fence without using their hands, I was going to do the same thing,” Lawrence says of his buddies. “If they could dunk a basketball, I would do the same thing. . . . Because I was big, it wasn’t like I thought, ‘I can’t do that.’ I was still more athletic than almost everybody I was hanging out with.”

On Wednesdays throughout his high school career, Lucas says Lawrence and his teammates participated in weight room drills, everything from flyovers to box jumps to hurdle jumps. Lawrence’s agility matched that of running backs, receivers and defensive backs, according to Lucas.

Now, as a Clemson junior, Lawrence stands 6-foot-4 and weighs in the neighborhood of 350 pounds. To watch him on just about any play from scrimmage is to admire his mobility, regardless of his size. Never has the word “dexterity” -- pun intended -- been more applicable to a college defensive lineman.

“He’s 345 (pounds), but he is muscle,” says Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. “His composition is really good. Then you couple that with his unique agility, ability to change direction, just strength, makes him really, really special.”

David Cutcliffe, whose Duke team plays at Clemson Saturday, has watched Lawrence’s development since high school.

“His athleticism defies someone that size, always has,” Cutcliffe says.

Playing at Clemson almost did not happen as well.

Immediate impact

On his first unofficial visit to Clemson during the summer prior to his junior year of high school, Lawrence’s Mom was involved in a car crash near campus. The car was a total loss, yet no one was injured.

“We’ll never come back to Clemson,” Lawrence recalls his mother saying.

A year later, the two again visited Clemson, and Lawrence had made up his mind that is where he wanted to attend school and play football.

“I don’t know how you feel, but I really like the school,” Lawrence told her.

“I like it,” Mom replied.

Lawrence made an immediate impact as a freshman, earning ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and was second-team All-ACC. Following foot surgery prior to his sophomore season, he played with numbness in his toes yet still earned first-team All-ACC accolades. This season, he even added a 2-yard touchdown run against Louisville to his resume.

Lawrence is on schedule to graduate following the spring semester as he prepares for the draft and a career in the NFL.

Mom, who is an instructional assistant at The School for Creative Studies in Durham, is now fully onboard to her son’s choices, both in Clemson and playing football instead of basketball with one caveat.

“If he would have kept up his basketball,” she says, “I really think he could have played in the NBA.”

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