With 'best prospect since Manning' at QB, Clemson just might be worthy challenger to Alabama yet again

Yahoo Sports

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – The nine NFL scouts lined the back row of Boston College‘s modest press box on Saturday night. They came to watch Clemson’s quartet of draft picks on the defensive line, BC’s first-round defensive end Zach Allen and the other assorted ensemble of eligible prospects. But what emerged throughout the game in Row 2 was a collection of “oooohs” and “aaaahhhhs” over Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence from the NFL scouting set.

The visceral emotions sparked a Greek chorus of adulation and anticipation, as it’s becoming increasingly clear what an elite prospect Lawrence can become. Don’t be surprised if in the next few years some savvy NFL fans start asking their franchise to Tank For Trevor in the 2021 NFL draft.

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Simply put, Trevor Lawrence has flashed so spectacularly in his debut season with size, poise, arm strength and mobility that he could well become the top quarterback prospect of this generation. “He’s the best prospect since [Peyton] Manning,” an ACC assistant coach told Yahoo Sports on Saturday night. “He’d be the first pick in this year’s draft if he came out, even if he didn’t play another snap.”

Just a true freshman, Lawrence will have to trim his flowing hair a few times before NFL scouts start evaluating him as a true junior in 2020. But for this college football season, Lawrence looms as the perfect foil for the aura of Alabama championship inevitability.

So far in 2018, the season’s main storylines have revolved around Alabama, Alabama’s dominance and whether Alabama could beat some schlocky NFL team like the Browns or Bills. Picture the old “Daaaa Bears” “Saturday Night Live” skit, and replace Bears with Tide and the bratwurst with brisket. That’s essentially been a distilled version of the conversation around the sport.

With No. 2 Clemson easily dispatching No. 17 Boston College, 27-7, on Saturday night at Alumni Stadium, it would be stunning if we didn’t get the fourth consecutive postseason edition of Alabama vs. Clemson. The first two were classic title games split by the programs, won essentially by a daring Alabama onside kick (Part 1 in 2015) and Deshaun Watson’s brilliance (Part 2 in 2016). Last year’s was a 24-6 dud in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff, as Clemson’s offense was rendered one-dimensional and impotent with Kelly Bryant behind center.

Quarterback Trevor Lawrence of the Clemson Tigers looks to pass in the first quarter of the game against the Boston College Eagles at Alumni Stadium on November 10, 2018 in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Getty Images)
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence of the Clemson Tigers looks to pass in the first quarter of the game against the Boston College Eagles at Alumni Stadium on November 10, 2018 in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Getty Images)

That’s led to reasonable speculation that Clemson coach Dabo Swinney had the Tide, his alma mater, in mind when he switched starting quarterbacks from the capable Kelly Bryant to the dynamic Lawrence after four games this season. I asked Swinney about it in a quiet moment after the game, and he immediately chuckled.

“Nothing to do with it,” he told Yahoo Sports. “That’s so far from reality. That’s a great storyline that people like to create. But I made the decisions based on what had happened in four ballgames. He was the best player.”

The switch to Lawrence has helped the Clemson program find another gear. And Swinney’s realization that Clemson needed more dynamism from the quarterback position is akin to what Alabama coach Nick Saban decided at halftime of the national title game last season against Georgia, when he subbed Tua Tagovailoa for Jalen Hurts. And similar to what Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly figured out when he swapped Brandon Wimbush for Ian Book in the fourth game of this season.

Swinney’s decision appeared risky in real time, as Bryant transferred and left Clemson’s depth chart vulnerable. But in the rear view, it appears painfully obvious that this decision was more difficult from a personal standpoint than a personnel standpoint.

“There’s no limit on him,” Swinney gushed about Lawrence. “He loves to prepare, he’s a brilliant guy. He’s got an unbelievable skill. He’s not even physically developed yet. That kid is 217 pounds, he’s going to be 235 and he’s a willing runner and an athletic kid.”

What impressed most about Lawrence at Boston College? It wasn’t that he rolled out in short sleeves on a night when the windchill dropped into the 20s. It wasn’t that he handled the gusts of wind with aplomb, as the American flag at half-mast in Alumni Stadium whipped in a frenzy early in the game. It wasn’t completing 29-of-40 passes for a touchdown and rushing for another.

What really stood out seeing Lawrence live for an entire game for the first time was that nothing bothered him. He looked and played completely at ease in all situations, a preternatural poise that will be necessary as Clemson finishes blowing through the ACC and then, finally, begins to see some formidable competition. (Apologies to Pat Narduzzi, but potentially playing Pittsburgh in the ACC championship doesn’t count.) Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott summed it up this way: “He’s got the mindset to go with his skill set.”

Trevor Lawrence (16) takes off on a keeper during a game between the Boson College Eagles and the Clemson University Tigers on. November 10, 2018, at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Getty Images)
Trevor Lawrence (16) takes off on a keeper during a game between the Boson College Eagles and the Clemson University Tigers on. November 10, 2018, at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Getty Images)

The Clemson staff has already begun dropping the highest-possible compliments on Lawrence, as they see his trajectory similar to that of former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. That’s the highest compliment in the Clemson football lexicon.

While he lacks Watson’s mobility, Lawrence showed on Saturday night that he’s a dangerous runner and has to be respected as a threat on zone-read plays. The comparisons to Watson are made mostly to where Lawrence is mentally, as Scott and co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said some of Lawrence’s best plays were throwaways.

“He’s very, very reminiscent to where Deshaun was at this point as a freshman,” Scott told Yahoo Sports. “From a mental standpoint, he’s where a junior second-year starter would be. He’s learning things and adjusting to things very quickly.”

Just as fast, Clemson reminded everyone just how good they are. The defense pitched a shutout, as BC’s only touchdown came via special teams. Dominant defensive lineman Christian Wilkins sacked BC quarterback Anthony Brown in the first quarter, ending his night and sending him to the hospital. The game was essentially over there, as BC had no way to move the ball.

And they had no answer for Lawrence, who has already mastered the art of sticking to his talking points. When asked about Alabama, he said he doesn’t have much time to see the Tide but did catch them a bit as they romped Mississippi State on Saturday. “Yeah, we’d love to,” Lawrence said when asked if he wants to see Alabama. “We’ll play whoever comes in front of us.”

That wasn’t exactly an overt chant of, “We want ‘Bama!” But as this 2018 season winnows into focus in the final weeks, Lawrence has given us reason to believe Clemson can go toe-to-toe, especially with Tagovailoa still appearing to battle a knee issue.

While the term for ‘Bama-Clemson Part IV — The Tetralogy — doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, it doesn’t mean we wouldn’t be any less excited to see it. On Saturday night, Lawrence gave us another data point why the best ongoing matchup in college football projects to be dramatic when this latest edition rolls around.

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