Think not only about what Clemson accomplished with its 44-16 victory that made clear the Tigers are every bit Alabama’s equal. Think about Lawrence, 6-foot-6 and poised like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, and Ross, a 6-4 wide receiver with a crazy combination of acrobatics and acumen.
“That’s what’s really so fun about this season, and really the last six or seven weeks,” said Jeff Scott, one of Clemson’s co-offensive coordinators, standing in the center of a delirious locker room. “It was a lot of fun game-planning when you have all those guys.”
There have been true freshman quarterbacks who have impacted prominent programs, and goodness knows there have been receivers who have walked from high schools into featured roles for marquee teams. But there may not have been a combination like these two, Lawrence the top quarterback recruit last year from the Atlanta exurbs, Ross the best player in Alabama who had the temerity to blow off his flagship state university with the stated goal of beating said school.
They have played one season and 15 games together. There are NFL teams that would line up to draft either of them tomorrow. But they can’t. The rules stipulate that the ACC and, in all likelihood, the CFP will have to deal with Trevor Lawrence and Justyn Ross for at least two more years.
“We’re building a lifelong relationship,” Ross said.
Makes the knees shake a bit.
Take note, ACC defensive coordinators, and try to contain these two. Lawrence is the first true freshman quarterback to steer his team to the national title since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway — in 1985. We can talk all we want about how young quarterbacks are better prepared to step into college and play immediately because high school offenses are more sophisticated than ever. Still, someone had to do it — not like Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa did a year ago, coming on in relief of starter Jalen Hurts at halftime of the Crimson Tide’s victory over Georgia, but with a team that became his and his alone.
That person is Lawrence.
“Trevor’s always been a special talent in my mind,” said, of all people, Alabama Coach Nick Saban.
He is a special talent, too, in the mind of Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney. And so, after four games — four victories — to start this season, Swinney benched senior Kelly Bryant (career record as a starter: 16-2) for Lawrence, who was still 18.
“Coach Swinney, he’s not afraid to make the tough decision,” Scott said.
Was it tough, though?
“After four games,” Swinney said, “he was the best player.”
If you’re a quarterback and you come to Clemson, you know one thing: You’re going to have targets to throw to. DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, Mike Williams — they all were Tigers, and they all were first-round NFL picks.
It says here Ross is next. Think about what he went through to catch his six passes for 153 yards Monday night, to change the game with a 74-yard catch-and-run: The kid from Phenix City, Ala., was lured to Clemson in part because Clemson needed him to beat Alabama.
“Eleven months ago, we were coming off a very disappointing loss to Alabama,” Scott said, speaking of the 24-6 decision in last year’s semifinal. “We’re not able to make the plays down the field that we did the year before with Mike Williams,” when the Tigers won.
“That was a big selling point that we told Ross,” Scott said. “We said, ‘Hey, you can help us beat Bama, because we need a big receiver like you to make those plays. We could be there next year, and you as a true freshman could be one of the real difference-makers in that game.’ ”
He made a difference. But so did Lawrence — and not just with his 347-yard, three-touchdown performance. Lawrence’s commitment to Clemson, Ross said, “played a big part in me coming here.”
Sound thinking. Lawrence was known to every college coach who had made his way to Cartersville, Ga., and returned to campus gushing about the consensus top player in the nation. What the Clemson coaches have learned since he arrived on campus: That status didn’t matter to him.
“He has his priorities in the right order,” said Tony Elliott, Scott’s co-coordinator. “He could care less about the accolades. We didn’t expect him to be rattled or to be shook, because he’s lived his whole life building for this moment from a character standpoint.”
Now, imagine what those two can do going forward. Before he had played a game at Clemson, Ross was something of a sensation because of the one-handed catches he tended to make in practice.
“I saw him do that,” sophomore running back Travis Etienne said, “and I knew he was different.”
Then he applied it to games. In his final two, against none other than Notre Dame and Alabama, he caught 12 balls for 301 yards and three touchdowns.
“The catches you saw him make tonight, those are routine for him,” Swinney said. “I mean, it’s just amazing. I told Trevor, I said, ‘Could you quit throwing crappy balls so he don’t have to show off like that and make some of those crazy catches?’ But that’s what he can do.”
And now, just 15 games into his career, that’s what he’s already done. That’s the frightening aspect for all of college football now. Lawrence and Ross aren’t untapped talents. At a time when most players their age are waiting their turn, they’re fully formed, accomplished stars. They’ll be back in 2019. They’ll be back again in 2020. They have beaten Alabama once. Would you bet against them again?
“We’re not done yet,” Ross said. “We’re not done at all.”