When most people think about NFL draft prospects, they typically focus on the numbers and the film. In pro-football parlance, you aren’t a person – you’re a player.
The humanity of each prospect typically gets stripped away, mostly so teams don’t get stuck with great story and a not-so-great player. But Clemson’s Shaq Lawson is the rarest of things – both a great prospect and a great story, a player so talented he seems like a lock to hear his name called during Thursday night’s first round.
His father died in a car accident while he was still in high school, and Lawson had to first attend military academy before being eligible to play at Clemson. In his first two years with the Tigers, he played a reserve role, but in 2015, he finally got his shot to be a full-time defensive end, and he responded marvelously – notching 12.5 sacks and an NCAA-leading 24.5 tackles for a loss, he helped the Clemson go 14-1 and earn a trip to the National Championship game, where they fell just short against Alabama.
His next trip will be to the NFL, where he hopes to become the league’s next great pass rusher.
We’ve almost reached the end of this whole draft process – looking back, were you prepared for everything that happened?
Yes sir, this is mostly what I expected. A lot of work, a lot of important things that the teams really look at – they’re gonna invest in you, so they want to make sure everything’s right. Combine, pro day, individual workouts and things like that. It’s been a great experience for me, I enjoy it. I can’t wait for the draft to get here, but I’m just enjoying the moment.
Do you pay attention to mock drafts?
Nah, I ain’t paying attention really. A lot of friends tell me about them, saying they want me to go to the Giants or things like that. But other than that, I’m not really paying attention at all. This draft is so crazy this year, you never know what’s gonna happen.
You’ve said you’re the best defensive end in this draft. How important is it to you to go in the top 5 or top 10 – or being the first pass rusher picked?
It would be important to me. I said I was the best defensive end this year. The guys I played against, like Ronnie Stanley and Cam Robinson, they’re two great tackles. So I feel like I deserve to be the best defensive end and I worked hard for it.
Clemson has produced a lot of NFL defensive ends – Vic Beasley, Da’Quan Bowers, Andre Branch – how does it feel to follow in their footsteps?
I knew Clemson was gonna be a family atmosphere, because they produce a lot of successful defensive ends – but we all got different type of games. I respect all their games; I just bring something different. Like, I’m more of a power, speed-rush type of guy, and that helps me play the run a lot better, but all of them bring a great aspect to the game. I grew up wanting to be a part of the legacy of Clemson defensive ends and having a chance to do it was a great experience. I enjoyed every moment at Clemson.
You had two sacks against Alabama in the National Championship game, but do you feel like you could have done more to help Clemson win?
Yes. I think about it a lot. You have to make the most of every opportunity you get, and I feel like we did that at Clemson in the National Championship. Even though we lost, we were fighting and I was proud of my teammates. I knew we had to fight our tails off, we just came up a little bit short.
Have you developed any strong relationships with NFL coaches through the draft process?
Yeah, I talked to a lot of them; they all seemed to like me. Coach Dan Quinn. Coach Rex Ryan. Pete Carroll, those guys. I talked to a lot of teams. They all really enjoyed how I play and what I do; it just depends on how everything turns out with free agents and who they want.
Do you think offensive lineman can handle the pass rushers of today?
There’s a lot of talent in pass rushing, you saw that in the Super Bowl; Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware changed the game. There’s a lot of great left tackles in the league right now. But when a guy like Von is coming off the edge, you just have to bring your A-game with him. That’s what I like to do: Bring my A-game against everybody in the league. That isn’t gonna be easy so I just got to work hard and be ready on Sundays.
How much do you think about getting sacks versus being a run stopper? How do you keep that balance?
I feel like I’ve been doing it all my life. Since I started my career, I’ve always been a great pass rusher and a run stopper. When I’m on my game, I can’t let the man in front of me beat me. That’s how I think. So I’m pretty much gonna do what I gotta do, whether it’s a pass play to get to the quarterback or a run play to stop him behind the line of scrimmage.
What do you think it’s going to be like to hear your name called on draft night?
It’s gonna be special. It’s gonna be something I’ve been dreaming of. I was capable of being a special player but I didn’t really see that at a young age or in high school, so I just made the most of it and got better each year. I was just working on my craft – doing the small things right, as a person and a player. If you do the small things right, it leads to big things in life.
There seems to be a large contingent of players named “Shaq” entering the league in recent years, all of them being born around the time that Shaquille O’Neal came to prominence in the NBA. Is that how you got the name?
Yes sir, I actually waited a couple days after I was born to get my name. I was a big baby; tall and long, so they named me Shaquille. And I’ve stuck with the name.