CLEMSON — He was such a big baby when he was born, Shaq Lawson was indeed named after the most famous Shaq of all.
WHO: Wake Forest (2-2, 0-1 ACC) at No. 3 Clemson (3-0, 1-0)
WHEN: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
WHERE: Memorial Stadium, Clemson, S.C.
LINE: Clemson by 29
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Like Shaquille O’Neal, Shaq Lawson’s first love was basketball. Unlike O’Neal, Lawson’s basketball dreams were not to be.
Never getting that final growth spurt, undersized at Daniel High School and only fielding offers from small schools, Lawson figured his chances of playing in the NBA were extraordinarily unlikely.
So he shifted his focus to football.
“Everybody knows basketball was my first love,” Lawson said. “After I figured I couldn’t go to the league because I was undersized, I needed to make football my love.”
Three games into his Clemson career, Lawson is proving why he made Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford sweat out their starting jobs.
A freshman defensive end entering the game on third downs, Lawson blew up a couple of North Carolina State drives to aid the Tigers’ 26-14 win, totaling 2.5 tackles for a loss (one sack) in 22 snaps last Thursday.
Lawson (6-3, 270) is no stranger to adversity. He lost his father to a car accident two years ago, and was sent to Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy when he didn’t qualify academically, though when he found out in November 2012 his grades were in order, he still had to finish out the year marching at 6 a.m. and taking orders from his superiors.
“I just had to stick it out. I was really mad and frustrated; I found out I really was qualified, but I just had to finish what I was doing,” Lawson said. “It’s probably the best thing for me because I was a little immature then. It made me more a leader, more a man, more focused on what I need to do.”
Lawson stuck with it, and was crowned the hottest prep school recruit in the country by the website 247Sports.com when he reached Clemson before spring drills.
“I think Hargrave teaches all of them a valuable lesson on discipline, teaches them how to study. The tough parts,” defensive ends coach Marion Hobby said.
“His work habits are better; coming out of high school, they were questionable. He just wanted to play on gameday; now you can see him each day trying to get better.”
Entering the Georgia game, Hobby told head coach Dabo Swinney he had three starting ends. It was a simple tiebreaker to Swinney; Beasley and Crawford had experience, so Lawson comes off the bench.
“I told Vic, you better go perform, because this big boy’s on your heels right here,” Swinney said. “You’re all going to play, but running out there first is always a big deal to those guys. It’s been fun because (Lawson’s) done just that; he’s transferred what we’ve seen in practice to the game field.”
While Beasley’s having his own monster season, half a sack off the national lead, Lawson’s earning comparisons to 2010 All-American Da’Quan Bowers.
“This guy, he’s a special talent. In my opinion, he might be the best guy we’ve signed as a freshman since I’ve been here as a D-lineman,” Swinney said. “As far as where he is physically and mentally, I haven’t been around a true freshman like him. His upside is tremendous.
“Da’Quan had a great freshman year, but the transition wasn’t quite as easy for him. Shaq, he just big-time gets it.”
One main compliment Swinney and defensive coordinator Brent Venables shared of Lawson: he loves the game of football.
“Believe it or not, not everybody loves to play; most guys don’t love to play. They might love to make the big play, but they don’t love to play,” Venables said. “Shaq loves to practice. He’s just a high-motor guy that loves to compete, he chases the football, and he’s got ability. He can run, he can bend, he can change direction, he’s explosive, got real strong instincts, and natural strength.
“He’s far from a polished product, but he’s got a fabulous foundation. If he continues to work and develop, he’s got a great future.”