JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Dabo Swinney has quite a few favorite NFL teams these days, but he may be just a bit more partial to one of them.
The Clemson football coach knows the area very well, and, now he knows the two newest faces of the franchise, too.
“First of all, I’m a big fan of Duval County. That was my recruiting area for a long time. … recruited a bunch of kids out of that area, all up, down I-10 and over to 95 and down in Orlando. So very familiar,” Swinney said Monday afternoon. “I just think it’s awesome. I just think it’s a great situation for both of them.”
Them, is quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne, products of Swinney’s Clemson program and part of the franchise reset under coach Urban Meyer in Jacksonville.
What was the most impressive thing about Lawrence, a player tabbed a generational prospect at the position? How about Etienne’s ability to adapt to Meyer’s vision for him as a multi-purpose player in Darrell Bevell’s offense?
No one knows those two better than Swinney, who coached Lawrence for three seasons and Etienne for four with the Tigers.
Swinney said that Lawrence’s ability to pick things up so quickly in college will be one of the biggest assets for him in his transition into the NFL.
“I remember the very first spring practice. I was so excited, and I’d seen him in camp before. I mean, to watch him throw the ball is just like, ‘wow.’ And that’s all great, but is he going to be able to handle the amount of installation that we’re going to, the pace we’re going to put things in? Can he make the adjustment, terminology wise? [Defensive coordinator] Brent Venables is not a guy that lines up in 4-3, Cover 2. Like Day 1, you’re getting like 10 blitzes thrown at you, that’s just how we do things,” Swinney said.
“… And I mean, it was from Day 1, you just knew he was special mentally. His head may have been swimming, but you couldn’t tell it. I mean, he looked like he had been here for a couple of years his first practice.”
No doubt that Lawrence’s physical skills were off the charts, but Swinney said that he was mentally ahead of the curve from the moment he set foot on the field at Clemson. The Tigers dialed things up quickly when Lawrence was a true freshman and he responded like a veteran.
Lawrence was named Clemson’s starter the fifth game of the season and he responded by going 11-0 and winning the College Football Playoff National Championship.
“You knew early, OK, this guy, he’s as gifted mentally as he is physically. If we can keep him on the right path here he’s going to be special, and boy was he. Graduated in three years, played in two national championship games, won one of them, three playoffs, three conference titles, winningest quarterback in school history. And to be quite honest with you, he’s one of the main reasons I think we played college football this past year,” Swinney said.
“He didn’t even have to play. But he was one of the main guys kind of leading the charge to play. And that just says a lot about his mental makeup. How competitive he is. How much he loves to play the game. I told Urban that, what you’re going to be blown away by is how smart he is. How quickly he picks things up. How much he loves to work at it, how much he loves to prepare. And that’s, that’s what separates him from other really, really talented people. He’s a lot more than just talented.”
The Jaguars got Etienne some work at receiver early during rookie minicamp, a move that drew rebuke across the national TV airwaves and social media.
If you wanted a receiver, why didn’t you draft a receiver?
Meyer said that he was after versatility and Etienne provides a bit of that dual-threat ability, similar to Percy Harvin’s role at Florida.
Harvin was a natural receiver who could line up in the backfield and create mismatches on defense. Etienne was a home run back with the Tigers and the Jaguars want to incorporate him into the passing game for those Harvin-esque matchup problems. Etienne had a career-high 48 catches and 588 receiving yards as a senior.
Swinney said that Etienne will need to refine running routes in the NFL, but that he can no doubt be first-, second- and third-down weapon with the Jaguars.
“He came a long way. He had never really caught the ball when we got him as a freshman and really didn’t have a lot of confidence. And this past year, he really went to another level,” Swinney said. “
But he’s still got a ways to go as far as the nuances of route running and things like that. But he can catch the football. He can score. Once you get the ball, everybody’s a running back, no matter if you’re a tight end or what. You get the ball, everybody’s running with it.”
Swinney’s ties to the area go beyond just Etienne and Lawrence. As an assistant on the Tigers staff from 2003-08, Swinney’s main region in Florida was from I-10 down to Orlando.
A seven-player local class in 2008 (St. Augustine’s Rashard Hall and Carlton Lewis, Bartram Trail’s Xavier Brewer and Kyle Parker, Trinity Christian’s Jamie Harper and Daniel Andrews and Bolles’ Matt Skinner) is one that he still remembers very well.
His first signing class as Clemson’s head coach in 2009 included just 12 players and one of those, offensive lineman Tyler Shatley, is entering his eighth season with the Jaguars.