North Carolina native Dexter Lawrence said he came to Clemson to play in big games. Without him, the Tigers might not be playing in one of the biggest in program history on Saturday.
The true freshman enters the Fiesta Bowl fourth on the team in tackles (74) and second in sacks (7). He also leads the Tigers in quarterback hurries with 20, despite turning 19 years old in November.
Having an immediate impact at a Power 5 school is difficult at any position, but it’s especially rare for linemen because they usually need a year in a college weight training program.
Lawrence made it apparent early he was going to be an exception to the rule.
“We had our first full practice in pads, and I could tell then he was going to be special,” Clemson senior defensive tackle Carlos Watkins said. “Our O-line. … We have some good guys. He came in and was dominating in one-on-ones. I was like, ‘Man.’ I knew then he was going to be special.”
Lawrence was unsure what to expect. Despite being a top-five recruit in the country, he wasn’t certain how much he would contribute.
“I never even thought too much about coming in and having an immediate impact. I’m not that type of thinker,” he said.
In the first game of his college career, Lawrence came off the bench to record seven tackles and a sack at Auburn. He started nine of 13 games, dominating at times.
Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said he has never been around a player like Lawrence, who arrived at Clemson weighing 340 pounds and standing 6-foot-5. According to Swinney, Lawrence bench press 32 reps at 225 pounds. The most reps at last year’s NFL Combine was 34.
“We got him out of the box, no assembly required, just boom, ready to go,” Swinney said. “I’ve come across some big dudes during my day, most of them were in the NFL, but I’ve never been around a freshman like him that’s that big that can move like him. … He just showed up here a giant.”
While Lawrence arrived at Clemson capable of making plays, he has leaned on Watkins for help throughout the season. Lawrence said it’s great to be able to go to the redshirt senior for advice, on and off the field.
“It’s big. He’s a veteran. He’s been here for five years. He knows what he’s talking about,” Lawrence said.
Watkins refers to Lawrence as “my son” and believes he has a bright future.
“He’s going to be the No. 1 pick in the draft,” Watkins said. “If he keeps getting better that’s what I see in his future. He’s rare. As I leave I’m going to challenge him to keep getting better.”
Who: Clemson (12-1) vs. Ohio State (11-1)
When: 7 p.m., Saturday
Where: Glendale, Ariz.
Line: OSU by 3