In 2013, Breitbart Sports ranked Carl Lawson the nation’s top recruit—the only site to do so in a cycle that saw Robert Nkemdiche as the consensus #1. Two years later, Lawson seems poised to prove us right.
Auburn opens the season this afternoon hosting the Louisville Cardinals at the Georgia Dome, where Lawson looks to play to his potential before a national CBS audience.
Lawson aspired toward simple goals when he came to Auburn. The confident recruit told Breitbart Sports he wanted to break the freshman sack record and vowed to work toward that goal. Despite using such words, similar to many boastful youngsters, the talented defensive end sounded confident rather than cocky. Talking about how he, already an accomplished athlete, had yet to prove anything and was prepared to work hard and earn every snap, Lawson sounded like a man on a mission, a player ready to sweat, and a future leader who teammates would rally around.
But the Auburn standout had no idea how tough that road would be.
While the pass rusher did not dominate as a true freshman, he certainly shined. Playing behind Dee Ford, a 2014 first-round selection by the Chiefs, Lawson saw less playing time than he had hoped. He still managed to accumulate four sacks that often came during key moments. In fact, the consensus five-star played as an integral part in the Tigers’ epic win over the Crimson Tide, the most memorable victory along the way to a national-title game appearance.
As many awaited a breakout sophomore performance, Lawson tore his ACL and sat out the season. And, his team suffered, falling from a projected playoff team to a disappointing 8-5 season that led to the firing of defensive coordinator. Now, he’s back, better than ever, and with a new scheme that highlights his pass-rushing abilities.
With Ellis Johnson out and Will Muschamp in, expectations are high for the Auburn defense as a whole and Lawson in particular. A tough, grueling comeback from injury may have made the edge rusher even stronger. Instead of sulking, Lawson lifted and studied, working to improve his body as well as his pass-rush moves and overall knowledge of the game. While coaches frequently praised his handling of the situation, his leadership, and his time in the film room, the former top recruit pledged to get stronger and faster.
The results of Lawson’s diligence? In February, just months after the injury, the fast-twitch end ran a 1.57 ten-yard split, a mark that would have finished second only to Eli Harold at the NFL Combine.
The full recovery has sparked a dominant offseason for the Tigers end, who will now play the “buck” position in Muschamp’s scheme—the same position played by #3 overall pick Dante Fowler at Florida last year. In that spot, Lawson has been unstoppable this preseason. Head coach Gus Malzahn has called him “unblocklable.” In fact, coaches held out the Tiger from some offseason scrimmages due to his disruptive abilities.
Jeff Grimes, the offensive line coach whose players struggle against Lawson every day, told AL.com, “He’s like blocking smoke.” He added, “He can slip through a crack like nothing you’ve ever seen. The guy is good, man.” Grimes went on to compare the defender favorably to some of the great collegiate players he’s encountered, including Von Miller.
Going into the season, expectations are high for Carl Lawson. Despite missing all of last season, Drafttek.com ranks Lawson #30 overall on their Big Board, and others rank him even higher. Those cautious rankings could explode should he enjoy the season many expect. Having interviewed Lawson and followed his career, I believe the humble, hungry, and talented redshirt sophomore will put together a season to remember.
Auburn’s defense finished last season by giving up an average of 38 points against its last seven FBS opponents. Those games resulted in five losses, and, beyond turning to the heralded hire of new DC Muschamp, Auburn looks to Lawson to lead a defensive resurgence.
Many peg Auburn to rebound and make the second College Football Playoffs. If they make good on those expectations, our former #1 recruit figures to be at the center of it. No, Carl Lawson did not break the freshman sack record, but it looks unlikely he will leave college football before giving us something to remember.