Gene Sapakoff is a columnist and College Sports Editor at The Post and Courier.

GWINN DAVIS MEDIA (copy)

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence finds running room in the Tigers' 52-14 victory over Georgia Tech Thursday night at Death Valley. Gwinn Davis/Special to The Post and Courier

CLEMSON — Trevor Lawrence’s passing prowess looks something like Peyton Manning (tall and exceptionally smart) mixed with John Elway (rocket right arm).

Cool hair, that’s part of the skill set, too.

Teams attempting to block No. 1 Clemson’s path to a fifth straight College Football Playoff appearance also must deal with Lawrence’s churning legs, apparently more than in 2018.

Among key Tiger points of emphasis in Thursday night’s 52-14 ACC victory over Georgia Tech at Death Valley: the 6-6, 220-pound sophomore quarterback as a designated, dangerous runner.

More than during a freshman season in which he led Clemson to its second national championship in three years.

Lawrence ran three times for 24 yards while helping Clemson seize a 28-0 halftime lead. It doesn’t sound like much and isn't the workload of fellow Heisman Trophy candidate Travis Etienne. But two of those runs were for first downs.

"He's a much better runner than people give him credit for," offensive co-coordinator Tony Elliott said.

A slick 25-yard run was called back because of a holding penalty.

Lawrence, who scored only one touchdown last season, opened the Clemson scoring Thursday with a 6-yard run up the middle.

"To have an impact with your legs when you get that opportunity is really critical for us to take that next step offensively," said Jeff Scott, Clemson's other offensive co-coordinator.

Head coach Dabo Swinney said in the offseason he wanted Lawrence to do more with his legs, buying time in the pocket and on designed runs.

Just another thing for defensive coordinators to worry about when trying to scheme against a guy already widely projected as the first overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft. 

Fancy footwork

Need a third-down conversion in a pinch?

The Lawrence fastball as fired down-and-out and into the sure hands of Tee Higgins or Justyn Ross (or several other guys) is very hard to stop.

Of course, it’s a luxury to have Etienne around to zoom down field for a 90-yard touchdown with Clemson backed up. That’s what college football’s best running back did Thursday night.

But Lawrence with his own relatively fancy footwork opens things up for the receivers and running backs, allowing such things as a 62-yard touchdown pass to Higgins (the line-drive pass traveled 50 yards in the air).

It’s not like Lawrence was a statue in the backfield for all of last season; he rushed for 42 yards on four carries in a 56-35 win over South Carolina and 27 yards on six carries in the 44-16 stomping of Alabama in the national championship game.

It’s the early message from Elliott and Scott and quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter: Keep an eye on No. 16 cutting up the field or pay the price.

"Each game is going to dictate that," Elliott said. "The biggest thing we ask of him is to make the system right. We have different concepts that require him, if the defense takes away the inside run, to pull it. He's done a really good job of making the right decisions."

Too much of Lawrence running does get a little scary.

So was Lawrence sprinting hard before lowering his shoulder to knock Georgia Tech’s Tre Swilling out of bounds at the Clemson 2-yard line after a Swilling interception.

But the tackling quarterback saved a touchdown (and Clemson’s defense held the Yellow Jackets out of the end zone).

"When your most talented player gives that type of effort, that's big," Scott said.

‘Work to do’

There was other Clemson sloppiness in the inaugural ACC Network football game, including an Etienne fumble and Georgia Tech quarterback Tobias Oliver getting loose for a 39-yard run.

Lawrence was a mere 13 of 23 for 168 yards and he threw two interceptions, though the second was a long-shot pass on the final play of the first half.

Such stuff was predictable.

“Whatever happens Thursday night,” Swinney said this week, “we’re going to have a lot of work to do.”

There was also plenty to like, resiliency leading the way.

Swinney raved this week about the strides made by 6-5, 345-pound left tackle Jackson Carman, who takes over for four-year starter Mitch Hyatt.

And there was Carman bowling over poor Georgia Tech defensive back Christian Campbell to spring Etienne on the 90-yard touchdown run.

If defense is Clemson’s weaker half, the rest of college football weeps.

Take the defensive line, the entirety of which was taken away by the NFL last spring. Logan Rudolph, Justin Foster and K.J. Henry are terrific talents, All-ACC candidates each one.

That’s just the three-deep at one of two defensive end spots, though position assignments are mostly interchangeable.

Clemson’s defense, as a whole, might be as talented as the 2018 group, which included first-round picks Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence. But these people seem faster.

Combine all that with a preseason All-America quarterback who looks even more dangerous than advertised, deduct the typical first-game bugs, and Clemson is right on schedule.

Again.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff

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