CLEMSON, S.C. — The most significant plate of eggs and bacon in the recent history of Clemson football was eaten a day after the Tigers’ route of Georgia Tech on Sept. 22, at Sunnyside Cafe, just down the road from campus, and was shared between the veteran leader of the defense and the young kid about to take over the offense.
Trevor Lawrence had just ascended to the throne after months of speculation about the future of Clemson’s quarterback job. Christian Wilkins had been the unquestioned voice of the locker room for years, and the defensive tackle wanted to offer his personal endorsement to the new guy, a show of support and, perhaps, a changing of the guard — all with a side of grits and coffee.
That story has been told again and again as Lawrence has led Clemson to 10 straight wins as a starter and now has his team poised to take on Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T on Monday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). It feels fitting.
The only problem? It didn’t quite go down that way.
“I was hungry,” Wilkins said of his motivation for scheduling the breakfast, “and Trevor had a car.”
Yeah, maybe we’ve been overthinking all of this a bit. But can you blame the media and fans and, heck, even the opposition for thinking Lawrence, the freshman who had to win the job midseason, might’ve needed a little encouragement somewhere along the way? Isn’t that how this is supposed to work?
That’s the thing about Clemson’s emerging superstar. All of this has actually been pretty easy.
OK, that’s the wrong word, too, because Lawrence works as hard as anyone, prepares as well as anyone and is as talented as anyone. But he sure makes it look easy.
“It’s crazy how cool he is,” Wilkins said.
Even the way Lawrence handled himself throughout a tumultuous offseason and September, as he battled to unseat senior Kelly Bryant, a beloved teammate, from the starting job, was low-key cool. He came in, went to work and did the job better than the other guy.
That breakfast? Wilkins had been planning it for weeks, and it just so happened to coincide with Lawrence’s ascension to the throne. There was no ceremonial gestures, no “it’s your team now” monologues. Just pancakes and toast.
All of which brings us to the bigger point: Don’t think Trevor Lawrence needs a pep talk about the stage he’s about to encounter against Alabama. Don’t think he’s stressed or intimidated or overwhelmed by the moment. Nah, this is right where he was planning to be all along.
“It’s important to have a vision,” Lawrence said. “You don’t end up in a situation and ask, ‘How did I get here?’ You set goals and you have big dreams and that helps a lot.”
Joey King remembers once asking his former quarterback at Cartersville High what his goals were for his football career. He was asking about Lawrence’s recruitment, really — where he could go to college that might best fit his long-term vision. It’s the type of thing every elite recruit gets asked.
“He told me he wants to be the best that ever played the position,” King said. “That’s a pretty lofty goal, but I believe in it.”
Don’t confuse this with arrogance, because it’s not that exactly. Lawrence spends almost no time discussing his own ability or success without being specifically prompted. He’s been a team guy since he arrived at Clemson, even while working to push one of the team’s incumbent leaders aside. But the certainty with which he approaches the job requires a level of confidence, of self-assuredness, that’s just not typical for a teenager, even one with Lawrence’s flowing locks and rocket arm.
Head coach Dabo Swinney called Lawrence the easiest recruit he’s ever signed. Lawrence liked Clemson. Clemson loved him. That was it. Never mind that Bryant was on the roster along with another former ESPN 300 QB in Zerrick Cooper. So what if the Tigers were about to sign the top QB in the 2017 class, Hunter Johnson? Lawrence had his vision — starting for Clemson, winning a title. The rest was window dressing.
“Not one time did he ever ask me about another quarterback,” Swinney said. “He’s locked in on himself.”
Swinney often compares Lawrence to Clemson’s last superhero, Deshaun Watson. In terms of sheer talent, it makes sense. They both arrived as highly touted recruits with big arms and a nuanced understanding of how the game is played. Their personalities overlap a good bit, too. Both are quiet and even-keeled, saying all the right things and backing it up with an unquestioned work ethic. But even that comparison, for Lawrence, rankles.
Think he’s just like the best QB ever to put on a Clemson uniform? Nah, he’s not interested in that talk.
“I want to make my own path, and be my own person,” Lawrence said. “I’m not chasing anything [Watson] did.”
And yet, here he is, a budding superstar on the precipice of a national championship with only mighty Alabama standing in his way. It’s a story Clemson has seen before. It’s just a story no one could’ve realistically expected to be written again just two years after Watson’s first act.
Here’s what Lawrence has accomplished so far this season: He beat out Bryant, a guy who took Clemson to the playoff a year ago, for the starting job. He became a freshman All-American, with a stat line — 66 percent completion rate, nearly 3,000 yards passing, 27 touchdowns to just four interceptions — that likely would’ve had him in the Heisman discussion if he’d been a full-time starter from Day 1. He’s 10-0 as a starter. He torched in-state rival South Carolina, won an ACC title and then dominated Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.
You might think Lawrence would take a step back for a just a moment, survey his kingdom and shake his head in awe. Nope. He’s a little confused why everyone seems to think this is a big deal.
“I was talking to my girlfriend and she was like, ‘You should sound excited sometimes,'” Lawrence said.
That’s just not how he’s built. He’s cool, always. He calls it a gift from birth, which seems to fit with the rest of his branding.
Lawrence said he was 8 years old when he first realized he had an arm that made him special. He was in eighth grade when he decided to commit to becoming an NFL quarterback, with all the training, film study, conditioning and coaching that went with it. While most kids his age were trying to learn algebra, Lawrence set his mind on mimicking Peyton Manning.
So sure, Alabama’s defense might be a bit intimidating to a normal freshman. Perhaps someone else would be rattled by whatever it is Nick Saban has planned. Not Lawrence, though. He’s been preparing for this moment for a while.
“Teams have tried to confuse us all year,” Lawrence said. “If we prepare the right way, everything will be fine. In the national championship game, obviously, the teams are going to be good. But we’ll be ready.”
Back in those early weeks of spring ball, when Lawrence had been on campus for a month and was still more a haircut than a quarterback, Wilkins decided it was time to test the freshman’s mettle. This is Wilkins’ wheelhouse. He loves hitting quarterbacks and talking smack, and he was going to do both to Lawrence as often as possible.
“As much as I might’ve gotten into his face or just me being who I am, he never really responded, he just shrugged it off,” Wilkins said. “He was never rattled; it never got into his head. I knew he’d be ready for the big stage because he just never responded.”
King got a call in early 2015 with news that his quarterback had been named the MaxPreps National Freshman of the Year. This was huge, King thought, dialing his phone to inform Lawrence of the honor.
“Hey, man, I’ve got some big news for you,” King blurted.
Lawrence interrupted. He was in the middle of a video game, he said. He’d have to call King back.
Fifteen minutes later, King’s phone buzzed. By this point, the coach was bursting. He relayed the news, offered congratulations and reminded Lawrence what a huge honor this was.
“OK, thanks,” Lawrence said. “What time are we getting into the weight room tomorrow?”
“It’s been that way with everything,” King said. “He doesn’t get caught up in all the hype. He just wants to be the best.”
Wilkins pops off in practice after a big sack? Lawrence is cool as a cucumber.
First pass in a road game, amid the unbridled chaos at Texas A&M? Just reel off a 64-yard touchdown pass to Tee Higgins. No big thing.
A playoff semifinal, with the Notre Dame defense daring him to throw? Yawn. And 327 yards later, Lawrence is relaxing on the bench as his backup handles mop-up duty.
“It’s got to be the hair,” Higgins laughed. “He takes off the helmet, gives the hair a little rub, and he’s all good.”
Yeah, that might just be it. Lawrence is some sort of modern-day Samson figure.
Before the Cotton Bowl, the team did a tour of the Dallas Children’s Hospital, and offensive lineman Sean Pollard was doing all he could to get a laugh out of the patients. To entertain one kid, he filled his hand full of shaving cream and tried to swat tailback Travis Etienne, who dodged it and ran off.
“OK,” the kid said, “hit Trevor.”
So Pollard snuck up behind Lawrence and delivered a handful of white fizz right into the face — and hair! — of his starting QB.
That did it. That, Pollard said, was the only time he’s ever seen Lawrence rattled. But it happened. There were even witnesses, as the kids in the room roared with laughter.
“He didn’t talk to me for like 20 minutes,” Pollard said.
So maybe Quinnen Williams brings a case of Barbasol to the title game. Or maybe this Alabama defense proves to finally be the one obstacle big enough to rattle Lawrence without tussling his hair. Or maybe Lawrence checks another box off the list of accomplishments he’s envisioned since he was a kid.
Maybe then, when it’s all over, he’ll finally crack a smile and admit what’s happened is kind of special.