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  • Associated Press Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrenceis 9-0 as a starter with 24 touchdown passes and just four interceptions while completing 65 percent of his throws . 

Friday, December 28, 2018 1:00 am

Irish's focus on Tigers' phenom

Freshman QB has lived up to hype so far

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Cotton Bowl

Who: Notre Dame vs. Clemson

Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

When: 4 p.m. Saturday

Records: Notre Dame 12-0, Clemson 13-0

TV: ESPN

ARLINGTON, Texas – One of the starting quarterbacks for the Cotton Bowl began the year as the backup behind an experienced starter, took over the starting job early in the season, battled an injury and eventually returned to lead his team to an undefeated season.

The other quarterback is Ian Book.

Clemson signal-caller Trevor Lawrence will be one of the key figures in Saturday’s matchup between the No. 2 Tigers and No. 3 Notre Dame. If he plays like the true freshman he is, Notre Dame’s opportunistic defense will have a chance to make some big plays. If he plays like a poised-beyond-his-years veteran as he has most of the season, the Irish’s defense could be in for a tough night.

At this time last year, Lawrence was getting ready to play in the Army All-American Game with a group of fellow high school seniors. Now, he pilots a Clemson offense that ranks No. 4 nationally, averaging 45.4 points. For the Tigers, that wasn’t entirely unexpected.

“You can see it when a kid has that ‘it’ factor and is special,” Clemson offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said.  “(His football IQ) was a little further along than we expected, but this is not a surprise to any of our coaches because we knew recruiting him he was going to be the type of player that he is.”

Clemson recruited Lawrence along with nearly every college in the country. The long-haired, 6-foot-6 quarterback from Cartersville, Georgia, was the top recruit in the 2018 class, per 24/7 Sports, and the seventh-best recruit of all time since the recruiting site began rankings in 1999.

Quarterback Kelly Bryant led the Tigers to the College Football Playoff in 2017, but Lawrence was so impressive that coach Dabo Swinney named him the starter before a Week 5 matchup against Syracuse. The freshman left that game with a concussion, but returned the next week against Wake Forest and hasn’t left the lineup since. 

Lawrence’s numbers are impressive. He’s thrown 24 touchdowns and just four interceptions, while completing 65 percent for eight yards per attempt and more than 2,600 total yards.

His physical tools – big arm, decent mobility – are impressive, but Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea has been most impressed with the first-year starter’s decision-making.

“He can identify coverages and he gets the ball out,” Lea said. “He makes decisions in the (run-pass option) game, off quick reads. When he has a matchup he likes, he puts the ball up and positions together. It’s incredible.

“I don’t know that there will be a snap where we won’t be concerned with their ability to go the length of the field on Saturday.”

So, Lawrence hasn’t played like a typical mistake-prone, inconsistent freshman. Poised is usually one of the first words coaches and opponents use to describe him.

But the ACC offers few, if any, defenses on the level of Notre Dame’s. 

The Irish defense ranks No. 1 in the country in yards given up per pass attempt at just 5.35. Notre Dame rarely gives up big plays and makes plenty of its own in the secondary.

“It’s a big moment and a big stage and he’s handled himself so well this year,” cornerback Julian Love said of Lawrence. “But we’re going to do what we do. Make him earn it and really make him think every play. I don’t know if it’ll rattle him, but it’ll definitely make him think about it.”

Lawrence exudes talent and confidence at all times, the platonic ideal of the “Can’t-Miss Kid.”

Notre Dame’s job is, for one night at least, to make him miss.

dsinn@jg.net