CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) - Few at Clemson knew what to make of massive defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence when he stepped on campus last January.
Defensive end Clelin Ferrell saw an undisciplined high schooler he nicknamed “X-Box 360” because of his starting weight. Linebacker Ben Boulware saw a “cuddly Teddy Bear,” an unassuming, giggly kid with a permanent smile on his face.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney saw a 6-foot-5, 340-pound, ready-to-go run stopper to plug into the Tigers defense.
“He came out of the box, ready to go,” Swinney says.
Lawrence is a first-year wonder, an agile, slimmer, 340-pound force who has harassed quarterbacks and ball carriers throughout his first season. He gets to face the gold standard of college defensive lines when the third-ranked Tigers (13-1) take on No. 1 Alabama (14-0) for the national championship on Monday night.
Lawrence has started 10 games this season, including seven of the last eight as he’s become as much a focal point of Clemson’s defense as leading tackler Boulware and sacks leader Carlos Watkins. Lawrence was named the Atlantic Coast Conference defensive rookie of the year. He had a quiet performance with no tackles in the Tigers 31-0 Fiesta Bowl win over Ohio State, but kept the middle occupied as his teammates registered 11 tackles for loss.
Lawrence is fourth on the team with 74 tackles and second behind Watkins with seven sacks. To assume a person that big can’t move that fast is a mistake too many opposing offensive linemen have made this year.
Ferrell remembers his jaw dropped when he watched Lawrence’s quick, agile moves.
“You don’t think he can do it, but he does,” Ferrell said.
Lawrence had 91 tackles and 21 tackles for loss as a senior at Wake Forest High School in North Carolina, voted AP Player of the Year in that state. He was rated the country’s No. 2 college prospect, enrolled in Clemson in January and made a quick impact in his first spring scrimmage with a sack and an interception that he ran back 32 yards as only speedy receiver Hunter Renfrow could catch him.
“I feel like everybody was impressed I could move with my body weight,” Lawrence said.
He was unsure how big a role he’d have with experienced linemen like Watkins and defensive end Christian Wilkins part of a deep rotation on Clemson’s front line. He got his first start in week two against Troy and proved dominant with seven tackles, including two behind the line of scrimmage.
“I don’t really get too nervous too much, just excited for the next game,” he said, giggling when he’s done with his thought.
Lawrence said after his senior high school season was done, he went on several official visits - and gorged on the unlimited food available to recruits. That beefed him up about 20 pounds over his playing weight and Ferrell described the big, round belly he had when joining the Tigers.
“He didn’t know too much about nutrition and eating right,” said Ferrell, a slender-looking 6-5, 265.
Once on campus, Lawrence began working out hard and limiting portions - he’s partial to pasta and will eat just about any kind - to prepare for his first season. He believes if he loses about five or 10 more pounds, he’ll be at his optimum weight to make big plays.
Lawrence is part of Clemson’s “Jumbo Package” where he and Wilkins join the offense on short-yardage situations. Lawrence’s role is get moving and go forward, knocking defenders out of the way like bowling pins. “That’s fun,” he said.
While Lawrence has changed some habits, he has not lost the goofiness. On Halloween, “Big Dex” was part of a Power Rangers quintet - he was the pink ranger - that’s managed by teammate and Power Rangers’ super fan Wilkins. The group visited the homes of several Clemson coaches two days after the team’s landmark win at Florida State, where it had not won in 10 years.
Boulware loves Lawrence’s demeanor - on field a warrior and a sweet, friendly giant off it. “He’s this big, cuddly Teddy Bear when you’re hanging around him,” Boulware said. “But he’s so big and so fast, you can’t believe all the things he does.”
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