In the least surprising thing to happen in a long time, the Jacksonville Jaguars used the first overall pick in the 2021 draft to procure the services of Trevor Lawrence.
I like to work ahead on occasion, and subsequently, typed up that first sentence 3 years ago and saved it for today. All I had to do was fill in the name of the team.
When I was tasked with writing this *breaking news* piece, I decided to try and make it different from other NFL draft pieces on Trevor, because if you’re reading this, you’re probably either a Jacksonville fan (Duuuvallll? Sorry guys, I’m new at this Jacksonville thing) or a Clemson fan (shout out to all you non-Jags and Clemson fans for stopping by, thanks for adding a few extra zeros at the end of my paycheck), and have already read everything there is to read about Trevor.
This raises a bit of a problem. How do you write about a guy that’s been in the national spotlight since high school? You already know he’s the prototype for the modern quarterback. You already know he’s a team leader. You already know he only lost 2 games as a starter (both coming in the CFP) over 3 seasons and blew the doors off Alabama as a freshman to win the National Championship. I can’t say a single thing about his hair that hasn’t been either said or written by someone. One thing I can do, however, is tell the truth, and you rarely see that on a sports blog.
The dirty truth, most Tiger fans will vehemently deny in public while quietly agreeing to in a Clemson-only group chat is that Clemson hasn’t been an elite team over the last two seasons. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming poverty. The Tigers have been a very good team, but elite....not really, and not even close in 2020.
The 2018 National Championship winning team was elite. That team was stacked on both offense and defense. The offensive line was, at worst, functional and at best, dominant. The skill positions were absurdly talented with Higgins, Ross, and Renfrow. Travis Etienne is one of the most electric backs in college history. The defensive line was one of the best in the history of college football. The linebackers were great. The secondary was stacked at corner and safety with NFL players. Trevor walked into one of the best situations in college football history.
The 2019 and 2020 teams, though, were nothing special without a quarterback like Trevor Lawrence. I get it. Most teams are better with a generational talent at quarterback, but that’s probably what it took to get Clemson over the hump in 2019 and was clearly the difference in 2020. I don’t think any other quarterback in the draft gets Clemson to the College Football Playoffs in those seasons other than Lawrence.
Trevor (with the help of Travis Etienne) was the ultimate band-aid for some serious recruiting and development problems at Clemson. The 2019 season featured an elite offense, but the defense was patched together and vulnerable. For the first time in a long while, offenses’ were able to hold the ball against Clemson. The only way Venables could generate a pass rush was by blitzing his secondary and linebackers from every conceivable angle. They were still a great team, top-4 worthy, but were easily the 3rd, and possibly the 4th, most talented team in the College football playoff.
I spent an entire year laughing at Ohio State fans who claimed “the better team lost” while secretly agreeing with them. I’d take Ohio State over Clemson in 2019 with any quarterback other than Trevor Lawrence (yes, including Joe Burrow and Justin Fields). When Ohio State punched Clemson in the mouth in the first quarter, Lawrence didn’t blink. He remained calm and every time I turned to my wife and said, “Clemson has to make this play to stay in the game”, Trevor (or Travis) would make the play.
In the National Championship game, LSU was clearly the best team on the field. That’s why it’s hard to knock Trevor for a bad performance against the Bayou Bengals, because, honestly, Clemson wasn’t on the same level as LSU. The outcome of that game didn’t surprise me. I couldn’t even get mad. The clearly superior team won, and deep down, I think most Clemson fans, while not expecting that outcome, weren’t particularly surprised by the loss.
Last season featured the worst Clemson team in Dabo’s current run of CFP appearances. I would take any of the prior Clemson teams, including 2019 and 2017, over the 2020 version of Clemson by double digits. Not only was the defense vulnerable, but the offense, outside of Trevor and Travis, wasn’t close to the normal standard.
The defensive line was better than it was in 2019, but there were still major depth issues at defensive tackle. The linebackers were decent with Skalski and bad without him. The secondary was the worst I’ve seen under Venables. Good teams were able to run and pass against the Tigers. Hell, a team as limited offensively as Virginia Tech was able to sit on the ball for an entire half while the Clemson offense battled hypothermia on the sideline because the defense couldn’t get off the field. A decent Notre Dame team exposed the Clemson defense (without the services of Skalski) in South Bend to the tune of 47 points.
Unlike 2019, the 2020 offense, as a unit, wasn’t good. The offensive line, in fact, was putrid. It was so incredibly bad that Travis Etienne, was often relegated to the role of receiver because there was no place for him to run between the tackles. He went from 7.8 yards a carry in 2019 to 5.4 yards a carry in 2020, and I promise you he didn’t suddenly forget how to run. It’s not that the offensive line wasn’t moving people off the line of scrimmage, it’s that between the tackles, they were getting regularly pushed into the backfield.
The wide receiver position, the calling card of Clemson for the last decade, was average, at best. There was no Justyn Ross or Tee Higgins level talent at the Tigers’ disposal. Thank God Cornell Powell figured it out late and gave the Tigers a legitimate downfield threat because before that happened, it was bleak. Amari Rodgers did his absolute best to hold down the fort, but the guys that were supposed to step up on the outside, didn’t, mainly due to injury.
It didn’t matter though, because Trevor Lawrence (with the help of Travis Etienne) was the ultimate band-aid. If you put any other quarterback in the nation on Clemson’s roster, they don’t sniff the college football playoff in 2020. You saw that clearly when Boston College dominated Clemson for a half with talented freshman D.J. Uiagalelei at the helm. It’s not that D.J. isn’t good. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m writing a “D.J. Uigelelei goes #1 in the draft” article in two years, but he’s not Trevor just yet, and it showed on the field.
Here’s another little piece of honesty for you. The ACC played the classic SEC shell game in 2020. I don’t think Notre Dame or Clemson were elite, but Clemson’s reputation (mainly due to Trevor and Travis) allowed the Fighting Irish to get their signature win in South Bend over a Trevorless Clemson. Clemson was able to redeem themselves against an otherwise good, but not great and certainly not elite, Notre Dame team in the ACC Championship to grab a spot in the CFP. Granted, outside of Alabama and Ohio State, it was a down year across the board in college football, but in terms of pure talent across position groups, Clemson wasn’t a top-4 team, not even close.
It didn’t matter, because Trevor is the ultimate band-aid.
Much like the LSU game of 2019, I couldn’t get upset about the loss to Ohio State, because Ohio State, both on paper, and on the field, was the far superior squad. Clemson wasn’t off against Ohio State, Clemson wasn’t as good as Ohio State and any team with an explosive offense and a consistent pass rush would have done the same thing to the Tigers. Trevor (and Travis) were able to patch up the fissures in the foundation against most teams, but any team on the “elite” level was going to blow the Tigers off the field. Thank God, we didn’t play Alabama because the Crimson Tide may have hung 70 on the defense for fun.
Why This Matters to you, a Jacksonville Fan
The “narrative” around Trevor is that he played with an incredible supporting cast. That’s simply not true. In 2018 he played with an extraordinary supporting cast and moonwalked to a National Championship. The last two years, not so much. You’ll hear “experts” talk about all the talent he was surrounded with at Clemson, but that’s a lazy take. Anyone who follows Clemson closely, and knows what they are talking about, will tell you that the last two seasons have relied on smoke and mirrors, Trevor and Travis, and maybe a little help from a down ACC.
Clemson hasn’t had a receiver selected in the first round since Mike Williams. They haven’t had an offensive lineman drafted in the first round in my memory. The tight end position has been a non-factor since Jordan Leggett, and he was a fifth-round pick. After the 2018 defense graduated, the Tigers haven’t had a single defensive lineman drafted, and that streak will continue this season. Isaiah Simmons is the only linebacker drafted in the previous 3 seasons. The secondary was great in 2018 and 2019 but dreadful in 2020.
In 2020, the Clemson offense relied on 2, 5* players, Trevor Lawrence and Jackson Carman at left tackle. Alabama featured 4 (not including Heisman trophy-winning WR Devonta Smith) and Ohio State featured 5. The talent discrepancy between Clemson and the aforementioned teams is staggering.
This is all to say that if you’re a Jacksonville fan, you’ve hit the lottery. During his time at Clemson, Trevor took a loaded team to a National Championship, a good team to the National Championship game, and a marginal team to the College Football Playoffs. If you surround him with elite talent, he’s elite, and your team is going to be dominant. If you surround him with very good talent, he’s elite, and your team is going to make the playoffs. If you surround him with marginal talent, he’s still elite and might be able to drag you to the wildcard game after he gets settled into the NFL.
You don’t have to cater your personnel to what he does well, because he does everything well. If you want him to throw to physical outside receivers down the sidelines, he can do that (Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross). If you want him to throw to a short, stocky slot receiver (Amari Rodgers) he can do that as well. Want to hit your running back out of the backfield? He’s got that covered (Travis Etienne). Need a first down on an option route, he’s got you covered (Hunter Renfrow). If you need a tough 3 yards for a first down, he’s a hard-nosed runner who doesn’t shy away from contact and is surprisingly adept at getting the corner and scampering out of bounds for the first down. If he gets an opening, he has the speed to take it to the house. He’s an absolute killer on the goal line with his 6’6” frame.
One other important factor that often gets overlooked is his toughness and durability. I’ve seen every snap in his career, and I’ve only seen him injured once. It was his first start against Syracuse and he took a helmet to the earhole diving for a first down. As far as I recall, those are the only snaps he missed because of injury in his Clemson career and he’s taken quite a few teeth-rattling shots. In 2020, he played with a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder and I don’t think anyone outside of the coaching staff, his family, and doctors had any idea he was injured.
The term “built differently” is thrown around a good bit these days, but Trevor Lawerence is built differently. He’s a quarterbacking savant packed into a startlingly athletic 6’6” frame. He has a cannon for an arm, the confidence of a gunslinger, and thrives on physical contact. He’s the total package.
Jacksonville, y’all are getting a generational quarterback. Don’t mess this up. These types of opportunities may fall in a franchise’s lap once every 20 or 30 years. Play your cards right and you’ll have an elite quarterback for the next 10-15 years and pick up a few rings along the way.