College Sports

How Clemson tackle emerged from math geek to defensive terror to NFL prospect

Here's what intrigues Clemson DT Dexter Lawrence off the field

What does Clemson's Dexter Lawrence -- a preseason All-America sophomore defensive tackle from Wake Forest, North Carolina -- do away from football?
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What does Clemson's Dexter Lawrence -- a preseason All-America sophomore defensive tackle from Wake Forest, North Carolina -- do away from football?

Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence is much more than a preseason All-American: He’s a forensics buff, a pink Power Ranger, an aspiring Secret Service agent, a math geek…

Math geek?

Yup. This gigantic man, who models his game after ferocious Miami Dolphins tackle Ndamukong Suh, was what you might call a “math-lete” as a boy.

“Two years I was in math camp. I was ahead of most of my classmates. It was pretty cool,” Lawrence recalled this week at Clemson’s new football facility. “It was my favorite subject. I was comfortable with numbers.”

The numbers associated with Lawrence’s freshman season were most impressive. Nine months removed from high school in the Raleigh suburb of Wake Forest, Lawrence finished with 62 tackles, 8 ½ of those for loss (including 6 ½ sacks). He recovered two fumbles. He had a pass-breakup at Auburn in his first college game.

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Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence takes the field for the Tigers’ first day of spring football practice in March. Tim Dominick tdominick@thestate.com

The Tigers lost a lot of talent off last season’s national championship team, including quarterback Deshaun Watson and wide receiver Mike Williams, both NFL first-rounders. But players such as Lawrence and his teammate-mentor, Christian Wilkins, illustrate fifth-ranked Clemson is hardly starting over this season.

Lawrence could have gone anywhere he chose to play college football. His finalists included Alabama, Florida and N.C. State. He says he picked Clemson for a serene campus near lakes and coach Dabo Swinney’s track record of graduating his players.

A car accident during Lawrence’s sophomore season at Wake Forest High nearly knocked Clemson off his list of options. But that’s a story for later.

Huge, but nimble

Lawrence showed up at Clemson in January 2016 at 6-foot-5 and 355 pounds. Considering those monstrous dimensions, it’s remarkable that he measured a relatively-low 18 percent body fat. But Lawrence was never the cliché fat-boy lineman growing up.

His favorite sport – what he once thought he’d play in college – was basketball. He claims to possess quite a crossover dribble, though by now he’s more a post player in pickup games. His mother exposed him to baseball and track and field, sports he now employs on the football field.

“With baseball it was (working) your hands. With the discus, it was working with your hips,” Lawrence recalled.

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Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence (right) is an imposing figure on the football field. South Carolina running back A.J. Turner found out just how imposing on this play last November at Clemson. Gerry Melendez gmelendez@thestate.com

Nimble isn’t a word frequently associated with interior line play, but it’s a description opposing coaches often use regarding Lawrence. It took him all of one play in his first spring-practice scrimmage to wow his new teammates.

Lawrence anticipated a screen pass, grabbed it out of the air and took off the other way. Wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, who caught the winning pass in the national championship game against Alabama, finally ran him down.

Picture Renfrow, at 180 pounds, trying to ride Lawrence to the ground before he crossed a goal line.

“The only reason he caught me was because I was wearing knee braces,” Lawrence said, chuckling. “He can live on that if he wants to, but it won’t happen again.”

That interception squashed any doubt Lawrence would play a lot as a freshman. His pass-breakup was a big momentum play in Clemson winning 19-13 at Auburn. Lawrence was so good so fast that as a sophomore he was named to an Associated Press first-team preseason All-American (Wilkins was named second team).

Nothing about Lawrence’s quick success surprised Swinney.

“He showed up big. I’ve had some guys leave (looking) like that but not many show up” that way, Swinney said. “I’ve never seen a guy that size move like him.

“Him and (Wilkins) give us a dynamic duo. With them healthy. We’ll be tough. ...(Lawrence) is very smart. He corrects his mistakes and plays with a great motor. Now, he’s played 15 games, so he’s sort of a sophomore-and-a-half.”

Studious, a stickler

For all the accolades Lawrence drew last season, he wasn’t all that content with his performance.

“I know I could have been way better than I was. I struggled at the mental part: Reading formations and blocking schemes,” Lawrence said. “This year that’s what I’m focused on - being a second quicker in my pre-snap reads."

Wilkins, who worked intensely one-on-one with Lawrence, says that natural ability was sufficient immediately to make Lawrence one of college football’s best at his position.

“He’s a freak athletically – so powerful and strong,” said Wilkins, a junior on track to graduate in December. “It takes a lot of energy for him to be relentless, but he’s a worker. He gets after it.”

Lawrence made sure to show proper respect to his veteran teammates among defensive linemen last year. That group identified itself with the Power Rangers, a superhero group each of whom dresses in a different color.

Wilkins asked Lawrence what Power Ranger he’d be. Lawrence picked pink, on the logic no other lineman would choose that color. That made an impression on the room.

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Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence (90) sacks Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans (4) during last season’s ACC Championship game in Orlando. Fla. That was one of 6 1/2 sacks Lawrence recorded as a freshman in the Tigers’ run to the national championship. Chris O'Meara AP

“I know I’m manly,” Lawrence said. “That won’t take anything away.”

Growing up Lawrence watched a lot of crime dramas, such as the CSI series, and that inspired an interest in Forensics. His major is Justice Studies, and Lawrence pictures himself someday working for the FBI or the Secret Service.

Crazy busy as his freshman year of college was, Lawrence maintained a 3.3 grade-point average.

“I’m trying to be an Academic All-American. That is huge in that (defensive lineman) room,” Lawrence said. “We’re not just competing on the field, also in the classroom.”

Riches, but when?

If Lawrence had performed as he did last season as a basketball player, he’d likely be preparing for his first NBA season. The NBA allows U.S. players to be draft-eligible after one college season. To be eligible for the NFL draft, a player must be in college football at least three seasons (either a junior or a redshirt-sophomore).

So, the earliest Lawrence could turn pro is after the 2018 college season. That hypothetically puts him in a situation similar to when Jadeveon Clowney was a sophomore at South Carolina in 2012: worthy of being a high pick, but not yet eligible.

Does Lawrence worry about being seriously injured before the chance to be drafted?

“You never know when that can happen, you just have to take care of your body,” said Lawrence, who works with a nutritionist at Clemson. “I’m not going to play timid, I’m going to be the guy I am. At the same time, I know (an injury) can happen any time. I play smart.”

Could Lawrence end up the No. 1 overall pick? His position appears to work against that. Over the past two decades quarterbacks, defensive ends and offensive tackles have dominated the top NFL pick. The last defensive tackle chosen first was Ohio State’s Dan Wilkinson, going to the Cincinnati Bengals in 1994.

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At Wake Forest, a Raleigh-area high school, Dexter Lawrence was one of the nation’s top football players. Before making Clemson his college choice, his finalists included Alabama, Florida and nearby N.C. State. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Lawrence says he models his game after Suh, for Suh’s “I’m the bully” intensity.

“We’re probably some of the most athletic people on the field,” Lawrence said of defensive tackles. “We’ve got to take up double-teams, convert to pass-rush and clog the middle.

“The ends can take a play off. We can’t take a play off. We’ve got to grind every play.”

A second look

Lawrence’s first visit to Clemson – his high school sophomore fall, when the Tigers played Georgia – didn’t go well. As Lawrence, his mother and stepfather were leaving campus, they had a car accident that flustered his mom.

“We’re never coming here again!” Lawrence’s mother exclaimed.

The summer before his senior season, Lawrence convinced his mom to give Clemson another look. It was a quiet time on campus; Lawrence met with the coaches and Wilkins showed up for a chat.

“Leaving, I looked back at my mom in the backseat,” Lawrence recalled. “I said, ‘I like it here.’ She said, ‘Me, too.’"

A national championship later, that sure looks like the right call.

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell

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