SANTA CLARA — The first thing that struck Clelin Ferrell about Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence was the same thing NFL teams and draft analysts would be salivating over three years later.
“The thing that jumped out was the talent,” Ferrell said Wednesday as the 49ers began preparations for a road game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. “Regardless of the X’s, O’s or scheme, you just saw this natural arm talent. Big, tall and can run too. Things didn’t have to be perfect for him to have an effect on the game.”
Austin Bryant, like Ferrell a standout defensive end for Clemson, remembered Lawrence for his maturity. Lawrence, one of the nation’s top recruits out of Cartersville, Ga., was a four-year high school varsity starter and stepped right into the starting lineup for Clemson.
“I remember his poise,” said Bryant, a 49ers practice squad lineman who has played in two games this season. “He came in as a young guy, didn’t get rattled. He took everything in stride and was able to earn the respect of his teammates as a young player. We had a lot of seniors, and for him to just walk right in and be himself and not let the moment be bigger than anything was really impressive.”
Lawrence was so good so fast that Clemson ended up going 15-0, winning the national championship by putting a 44-16 beating on Alabama at Levi’s Stadium. It was a foregone conclusion he’d come out after his junior year to become the top pick of the NFL Draft.
In a sense, Lawrence is Brock Purdy in reverse. First pick of the 2021 draft against the last pick of the 2022 draft. A prototype build of 6-foot-6, 220 pounds versus 6-1, 220. Powerful throwing arm as opposed to a medium-range touch passer. Excellent straight-ahead speed rather than sneaky fast.
And since Lawrence went No. 1 overall and stepped into the disastrous 13-game tenure of coach Urban Meyer, he had little in the way of a supporting cast or systems of football to make him successful. Purdy ended up with the 49ers, where the surrounding talent and scheme were ideal.
Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. once ranked Lawrence as the No. 4 quarterback prospect since he started ranking players in 1979 behind only John Elway, Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning.
(Kiper has since pushed Joe Burrow to No. 4 ahead of Lawrence.)
The 49ers were looking to move on from Jimmy Garoppolo in 2021, but even after moving up from No. 12 to No. 3 overall, had no chance of getting Lawrence and wound up dealing for the pick that would be Trey Lance.
It was a rough first season for Lawrence, one that included a 30-10 loss to the 49ers that dropped Jacksonville to 2-8, although coach Kyle Shanahan believed the talent was evident even in the worst of circumstances.
“The height he has, the size he has, he can make any throw and what he can do with his legs, whether it’s a designed run for him or off-schedule stuff, he’s always a problem,” Shanahan said.
In the first season under Doug Pederson last year, Lawrence made strides and led the Jaguars from 3-14 to 9-8 an AFC South title and a 31-30 wild card win over the Los Angeles Chargers in which he threw four first-half-interceptions and trailed 27-0 in the second quarter.
So far this season, Lawrence is completing 68.3 percent of his passes for 1,934 yards, nine touchdowns, four interceptions and a good-but-not-great 93.6 passer rating.
In separate appearances on KNBR, former 49ers quarterback Steve Young and NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell praised Lawrence while stopping short of putting him in an elite category.
“I feel like he’s a little bit of a Justin Herbert,” Young said in reference to the Chargers’ quarterback. “They could be great, could be one of these big-time guys, but they just don’t have everything put together. Justin has more talent than Trevor has, but they’re in the same place, on the come, and maybe by January we talk about it differently on the upside.”
Cosell poked fun at the inclination of draft analysts to proclaim yearly “generational” talents but has seen progress in Lawrence’s game.
“I thought Doug Pederson and his staff a year ago did an outstanding job addressing some of the technique and mechanical issues and it helped him tremendously,” Cosell said. “You can win games with Trevor Lawrence. He can make big-time throws and can move. So he’s a higher-level NFL quarterback.”
Lawrence talked with reporters in Jacksonville about the dilemma of facing the 49ers with Chase Young to go along with Nick Bosa on the edge.
“The difficult part of it is that they’re both great players,” Lawrence said. “That’s what makes it hard. There’s gonna be things you might have to adjust to in the game. You’re kind of guessing on where they’re gonna play, what they’re going to do, which side they’re gonna play on. You don’t really know that stuff.”
Lawrence has been coached to get rid of the ball quickly, which both Cousins and Burrow did against the 49ers with success. So how do they get to Lawrence, who has been sacked 19 times in eight games?
“You stop the run, you stop the screen and the (run-pass options) and the quick game and you try to force him to play quarterback — go through reads and hopefully later in the game make some plays,” Bosa said.
Lawrence was the first pick of the draft but is similar to Purdy in that he doesn’t carry himself as if he’s entitled to anything other than being part of the team.
“Trevor was a very laid-back guy, down-to-earth,” Ferrell said of his Clemson teammate. “Easy to talk to. He’s a guy that right away knew everybody’s name in the locker room, the sweetest guy you’ve ever met in your life. I’m just not going to be good friends with him this Sunday.”
Even during the worst of Lawrence’s rookie year under Meyer with a 3-14 team, Bryant had little doubt his former teammate would rise above it all.
“He’s a mature guy,” Bryant said. “He’s always been that way. He’s built for that type of stuff.”
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