Lawson primed for breakout as next great Clemson sack-master

Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson (90) is preparing to become Clemson's top defensive end, replacing the departed All-American Vic Beasley (3). Gwinn Davis / Special to the Post and Courier

CLEMSON — Not to be lost in the sea of watered-down clichés and coachspeak masquerading as player comments, Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson was good for a fresh take moments upon leaving the field after an intrasquad scrimmage.

“They put me down for three?” Lawson quizzically asked reporters, referring to tackles for loss next to his name on the coaches’ stat sheet. “I probably had, like, five at least. Coach (Dabo) Swinney probably didn’t count ‘em because they want the ball down the field.”

This coming season is supposed to be the dawn of Deshaun (Watson), a return to Clemson’s usual offensive firepower and instant classic games inviting the winner to put up at least 40 points.

That wasn’t protocol in 2014, when Clemson often won in spite of its offense. The Tigers produced their second No. 1 national defensive ranking in school history, with easily its deepest, most veteran bunch in 25 years.

Those guys, though? They’re prepping to play on Sundays. Vic Beasley, Corey Crawford, Stephone Anthony, Grady Jarrett, DeShawn Williams — well, keep listing off names of graduated seniors, but the bottom line is 88.5 tackles for loss belong to players no longer at Clemson, and just 28 belong to players who are.

Lawson had 11 of those 28 TFLs. It was actually second-best on the team, ahead of Anthony and Jarrett and Tony Steward and only trailing Beasley, the 2014 All-American and likely future first-round draft pick.

How’s this for not-saying-just-saying: Beasley, Clemson’s all-time sacks king with 33, had eight sacks going into his junior year. Lawson, going into his junior year, has 7.5 sacks.

However, Beasley had the benefit of those other proven pass-rushers taking some attention off the freak athlete. Lawson, who outweighs Beasley by 40 pounds, might have to do the dirty work himself, at least until some other unknowns (Carlos Watkins? D.J. Reader? Kevin Dodd?) assert themselves on gameday.

“I feel leaner and faster than I was last year, so that’s playing a big role this offseason,” Lawson said. “I’ve been maintaining my weight, I’ve been eating right and keeping it consistent at that 270 range. That’s where I want to play all year.”

A few fun facts about the friendly face of Clemson’s defense: Shaq Lawson was, indeed, named after the legend known simply as Shaq.

“I was a big baby. That’s why they named me after Shaquille O’Neal,” Lawson said, “and they thought I was going to be a basketball player.”

The gregarious Lawson was not one of those typical stories of an overgrown youth playing with boys a few years older than him; in fact, he played down, a parental decision.

He did play some basketball, following in the footsteps of his father and uncle who played at Southern Wesleyan University in Central, S.C. (next door to Clemson.)

Lawson spent a year at Hargrave Military Academy, becoming the No. 1 prep school prospect in the nation and sticking to his previous commitment to Clemson. Hargrave, which also produced Crawford and Donte Grantham, a Clemson men’s basketball player, is home to aspiring Division I athletes who get their academics and maturity in order.

“That made me more of a man. I matured a lot faster,” Lawson said. “You had to be accountable when you were at military school. You had to get up on time for everything. When I got to Clemson, the easy part was being accountable and disciplined. I really appreciate it right now, going to Hargrave.”

At Hargrave, Lawson would be ordered to arise at 5:30 a.m. and march in circles before breakfast, attend Saturday school and get along with every one of his classmates and teammates, because those were the only peers he had as opposed to a large university.

Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has seen the change in Lawson the football player, even if Lawson the goofball is never far from the field.

“Shaq’s a smart guy. He’s a little silly sometimes, but he’s more serious than he has been, and he always pays attention,” Venables said. “He’s a good, respectful guy, he’s got good intelligence, he knows right from wrong, and he cares. Shaq’s always been a hard worker, and he’s always been a disruptive, productive player.”

How disruptive Lawson proves this fall could go a long way in supporting this proclamation from bowl practices in December:

“I know a lot of people are gonna doubt us because we’re losing Vic and Corey and Stephone and Grady,” Lawson said then, “but we’ll continue to get better. We’ve got some great back-7 guys, so we really don’t want no drop-off. Our goal is to be the No. 1 defense in the country again next year by this time.”