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Trevor Lawrence leaves Clemson with his football legacy more than secure

Trevor Lawrence departs Clemson as one of its greatest players: a national champion, a record setter, a winner through and through.

That he is the best player available for the 2021 NFL draft has never been disputed — not this year, not the year before, and not the year before that, when his performance in the College Football Playoff national championship game against Alabama as a true freshman sent his stock soaring and brought the phrase “Tank for Trevor” into the lexicon.

His sheer dominance in that 44-16 win in Santa Clara, California, did more than just cement his status as the future No. 1 overall pick. It added even greater expectations for a player who already had astronomically high expectations set for him as the top quarterback prospect in high school.

Over the next two seasons, Lawrence continued to rack up yards and touchdown passes and oohs and aahs as he perfected his game and added the quarterback run to his repertoire. While other quarterbacks took their own star turns and put up bigger and — in some cases — better numbers, Lawrence led Clemson to the CFP in each of his three seasons as a starter.

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No other quarterback can make the same claim.

That Lawrence did it with the heightened expectations, with the pressure at the position, with defenses keying in on shutting him down week after week speaks to his natural ability to not just throw a football but to lead with grace, character and humility. It is rare to find a quarterback who lives up to what people expect him to be as a sophomore in high school; rarer still to find a quarterback to do it without changing who he is or what he stands for, or to become jaded with the mounting scrutiny and start struggling as a result.

Lawrence did it all while being true to himself, his teammates and his sport. When they needed him most over the summer, he answered that call. Twice. Lawrence helped his teammate and close friend Darien Rencher organize a protest march at the school with fellow Tigers Mike Jones Jr. and Cornell Powell after George Floyd’s death and took to social media to show his public support for them and the social justice movement. Then in August, he was instrumental in the We Want to Play movement, the most high-profile player to urge college football’s leaders to allow teams to play amid the coronavirus pandemic. Players and coaches have repeatedly credited him for saving the season, though Lawrence has been quick to deflect the credit.

Everything he has done has shown with clarity that Trevor Lawrence knows who Trevor Lawrence is, and he has never wavered in that — a rarity for any 21-year-old, let alone one who serves as the face of not just his team, but all of college football.

He made himself available to answer every question, never once ducking or shying away — qualities that will serve him well as he moves on to the NFL, where the criticism over his game begins now that he has officially declared for the draft. What awaits will be the greatest challenge of his career: The Jacksonville Jaguars have the No. 1 overall pick and have lost 15 straight games. It is not just his winning pedigree, but also his leadership, personality and keen understanding of his role as the face of a franchise that have groomed him to help not just on the field but also fixing the culture inside the locker room.

“All I know is Trevor is the winningest quarterback in school history, he’s now been in the playoffs three years in a row, he’s won three ACC titles, he’s an unbelievable leader,” Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “But the best thing about Trevor Lawrence that maybe he doesn’t get credit for is the type of young man he is. He’s all about his team. For a young man to have been under the scrutiny he’s been under since he was in high school, to win at the level that he’s won and to never change, to challenge himself to improve as a person — in my opinion, that embodies what the Heisman is all about.”

Lawrence certainly embodies those ideals, and there is no shame in finishing second in the Heisman voting to Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith. Lawrence was the favorite headed into the season, and the early leader midway through the season, but after missing two games because he tested positive for the coronavirus, Lawrence fell behind in the race while Smith emerged with his dazzling playmaking ability.

It is rare for Heisman favorites to end up winning the award, and in this case, Lawrence had shown us what he could do for three straight seasons. Rather than appreciate his NFL-ready skill set and his ability to make throws that many professional quarterbacks simply can’t, it is almost as if Lawrence was taken for granted because he made it all look so easy. Been there. Seen that. Shoulder shrug.

Who goes 34-2 as a starter, makes three straight College Football Playoff appearances, throws for over 10,000 yards and produces 108 total touchdowns in just three seasons?

Nobody but Lawrence.

Trevor Lawrence’s dominance in the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship only raised sky-high expectations. Deanne Fitzmaurice for ESPN

Those are jaw-dropping numbers. Yet the ease with which he did it all, week after week, perhaps eliminated the sit-up-and-take-notice wow factor that dazzled everyone when he was a true freshman. His performance in the ACC championship game is the perfect example.

After testing positive for COVID-19 forced him to watch from the sideline as Clemson lost its first game against Notre Dame in November, Lawrence had 410 total yards and three total touchdowns in the rematch win. His presence in the run game alone made a major difference and allowed the Tigers to dominate from start to finish. Yet once Alabama and Smith took the field later that night against Florida, what Lawrence did felt all but forgotten.

“Trevor’s been performing at this high level since he first got here, and I feel like people are just used to it,” Clemson receiver Amari Rodgers said. “They just expect that out of him, but they’re missing out on the consistency throughout his whole career, how well he’s been able to perform at such a high level, lead our team to victory every single week.”

As one ACC coach told me recently, “Trevor is the best player in college football. Stats are so misleading. Trevor didn’t have to throw for 500 yards and run for 100 yards a game to win, but if they needed him to do that, he could have done that.

“It’s very rare you find a guy who can sit in the pocket and play the position like he can and then have the ability to run like he can. It’s scary. I think he’s playing the game faster this year than he did last year. His body looks like it has more twitch to it. It looks like he’s moving quicker.”

Lawrence dedicated himself to becoming a better player after the national championship game loss to LSU a year ago, when he played poorly in his first career defeat as a starter — a complete counterpoint to what we saw his freshman year. It was LSU, not Clemson, with the unstoppable offense led by a quarterback who simply could not miss. It was jarring to see Lawrence struggle as badly as he did, going 18-of-37 for 234 yards. His lone touchdown came on a run.

Despite the trials that accompanied this offseason, Lawrence did show improvement. Elliott noted after Lawrence threw for 400 first-half yards against Georgia Tech early this season that Lawrence was simply enjoying the moment, playing loose and free, appreciative that they all had the chance to play.

There is little doubt Lawrence is among the greatest players in school history. But evaluating his exact place is slightly more complicated than it appears. There are those who believe his predecessor, Deshaun Watson, is the greatest quarterback in school history because he established Clemson as an annual national title contender, paving the way for Lawrence to continue the tradition.

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T
Hard Rock Stadium (Miami Gardens, Florida)
Jan. 11: 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and the ESPN App

College Football Playoff Semifinal at The Rose Bowl Game
AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
Alabama 31, Notre Dame 14

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl
Mercedes-Benz Superdome (New Orleans)
Ohio State 49, Clemson 28

Lawrence ended his college career not hoisting a championship trophy the way Watson did to close the 2016 season, but with coach Dabo Swinney hugging him on the sideline after losing to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinal. Both he and Clemson surely envisioned something different this season. But for the second straight year in the playoff, the quarterback on the other sideline proved to have the better game.

Afterward, Lawrence pointed at some of the mistakes he made, saying he wanted to get better from them while adding he had no regrets.

“I know that the way I prepared, the way this team prepared, and then just this whole year, the way we’ve carried ourselves, I’m proud of it,” Lawrence said. “I don’t have any regrets. There’s not much I’d go back and change.”

There should be no regrets. Lawrence won championships and won more than any other Clemson quarterback, and he represented himself and his school the right way.

His place in history is more than secure.

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