For a guy who wasn’t particularly excited about playing at Clemson, the school just miles from where he grew up in Central, S.C., Shaq Lawson sure took the long road to stardom there.
Lawson had all but accepted a scholarship offer from Tennessee his junior year in high school when his father died in a car accident. That changed his priorities – he felt a responsibility to stay close to his siblings – redirecting him to the Tigers’ program.
Except it wasn’t that easy. He didn’t qualify academically for direct acceptance to the school, so he took a detour to Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va.
For decades Hargrave has helped athletes improve enough academically to qualify for scholarships. Among the school’s alumni: former Charlotte Bobcats coach Larry Brown; former NASCAR driver Ward Burton; and retired NFL wide receiver Torry Holt, the former N.C. State star.
But the benefit of Hargrave is more appreciated in the past tense than when you are experiencing juggling military life with athletics.
"It makes you a better man with a more structured life," Lawson now says. "If I’d come straight to Clemson out of high school it might not have worked. At first I was sad I had to (attend Hargrave), but I got used to what I had to do."
He particularly remembers the hike to the football practice field and what awaited there.
"That was bad: You had to walk up a dirt hill, a rocky path past a graveyard," Lawson recalled. "And then push sleds 500 yards at practice. It was a tough experience, but it made me better."
Specifically, it taught him patience. Lawson was a top prospect at defensive end, but the guy playing ahead of him – Vic Beasley – was just as gifted and that much more experienced. While Beasley starred for the Tigers last season, Lawson accepted spot duty. Now Beasley is with the Atlanta Falcons – he caused a key Cam Newton fumble in the Falcons’ upset of the Carolina Panthers – and it’s Lawson’s time to shine with the Tigers.
His junior numbers demand attention: 9 ½ sacks, 78 tackles and 22 ½ of those for loss. Lawson, who is 6-foot-3 and 270 pounds, already announced his intention to enter next spring’s NFL draft.
But for now the goal is to win a national championship. The top-ranked Tigers (13-0) play Oklahoma (11-1) here in one of two playoff semifinals Thursday (4 p.m., ESPN). If the Tigers beat the Sooners, they would play Alabama or Michigan State in the national championship game Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz.
Clemson’s defense was supposed to take a step back this season after losing so much talent to graduation and/or the NFL. But the Tigers are seventh nationally in total defense, allowing 295.7 yards per game.
Lawson gives much of the credit to defensive coordinator Brent Venables, an animated and excitable coach who came to Clemson in 2012 after eight seasons as Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator. A former linebacker at Kansas State, Venables would figure to be a hot commodity to be a head coach in the next few seasons.
"He’s excited every day about defense, putting us in the right positions to make plays," Lawson said. “(This defense is) hungry and all brothers off the field."
Lawson says the moment of realization for just how good Clemson could be defensively was stuffing Notre Dame’s two-point conversion at the end of a 24-22 home victory Oct. 3. The weather was horrible that night and Clemson had just allowed a 1-yard touchdown pass on a blown coverage.
Irish quarterback Deshone Kizer kept the ball on the two-point attempt and was crushed by tacklers Carlos Watkins and Kevin Dodd.
Venables appreciates the significance of that play historically this season against the then-No. 6 Irish. But he remembers the chaos that preceded it as much as the elation that followed.
"I could say, ‘Oh, I knew we were going to be good! Everyone else doubted us, but I never did!’ " Venables joked Monday. "We can screw it up and then a find a way to get out of our own way.
"I was peeved still about that little pick route (Notre Dame) ran for the touchdown. We were in a good coverage and one of our players waved off the coverage and ran his own coverage. And then we just got that stop. Stoned it."
Which is how you find your way to 13-0.