AUBURN, Ala. — It took all of one practice for Howie DeCristofaro to realize the talent he had on his hands.
Two years ago, his team — Milton High School in Alpharetta — boasted three offensive linemen who would eventually sign with major Division I schools. Unfortunately for them, they were tasked with trying to stay in front of Carl Lawson. It didn’t matter who tried to block the naturally gifted defensive end, DeCristofaro recalled, since it ended with the same result every time.
The big men up front simply looked silly.
“He beat them like a drum,” DeCristofaro said of Lawson. “It was almost comical watching him go by them.”
In 30 years of coaching, DeCristofaro had never seen a player with a quicker first step. And as he was quick to point out, he had coached four defensive ends that played at high-level Division I schools. From then on, he was convinced Lawson would become the best player he ever had.
And Lawson didn’t let him down.
“On a 1-10 scale, if he was an eight and a half when I first saw him play, by the time he graduated, he had (improved) to the point he knew what the other guy was going to do because he watched so much film,” DeCristofaro said. “And that just made him a better player. He had all physical tools, but now he had the mental part, where he watched film the right way and looked at people's weaknesses and then he exploited those.”
It took just five games into Lawson’s career at Auburn to make a name for himself — and he did so with authority. In Auburn’s 30-22 victory against Ole Miss, the true freshman had six total tackles (three and a half for loss) to go along with two sacks. His latter sack couldn’t have come at a more important time, since his takedown of Rebel quarterback Bo Wallace with two minutes remaining was the visitors’ last chance at trying to mount a game-tying drive.
Afterward, Lawson was far more pleased with the victory than he was excited about his own performance.
“It means a lot,” he said, “but I know there's a lot of things I can do better on.”
That came as no surprise to DeCristofaro. Lawson was never a player who cared about his own stats or liked to sing his own praises.
“He just wants to win,” DeCristofaro said. “That's all he cares about: winning. If he has a part in it, that's great. If he doesn't have a part in it, as long as he's doing what he's supposed to do, he's all good.”
That singular focus was why Lawson never got drawn into talk of having a “rivalry” with Robert Nkemdiche. The Georgia natives were ranked as the top two defensive ends in the Class of 2013 for the duration of the year. But Lawson didn't pay attention to anything his counterpart did. It’s not because Lawson has a lack of respect for Nkemdiche — far from it. He said the Ole Miss freshman is “a great player” in his own right.
It’s just that Lawson has a larger goal in mind than just being better than Nkemdiche.
He wants to be better than everyone.
“There’s competition for me against any defensive end because I want to one day work to be the best,” he said, “but I’ve got a long way to go.”
Ellis Johnson didn’t dispute that point, noting Lawson struggled when he first arrived, much as any freshman would. Auburn’s defensive coordinator deemed him “physical and reckless,” which is fine when a tackle is made. But guessing wrong can lead to explosive plays for the other team.
As time has passed, Johnson has seen Lawson develop into a more disciplined player.
“He is just getting more and more comfortable with what his job is and assignment and blitz gap and stunts and all the different things he’s got to do,” Johnson said. “He’s had some really good pass rush (recently), most of it one-on-one, but he had a great move on a twist that is something he would have been struggling with just a couple of weeks ago.”
Lawson himself admitted as much.
“I didn't think it was (a problem) from a skills standpoint,” he said of his early season miscues. “I just know I was busting a couple of calls. So I just need to keep working and getting better and better. I need to do everything perfectly so I can get playing time.”
The coaching staff is expecting Lawson to make the kind of game he had against Ole Miss routine. That’s why they recruited him, after all. Gus Malzahn could only describe Lawson’s drive as “something else” when he first laid eyes on him.
“College football is a different game than high school and it took him a couple of weeks to get everything down,” he said. “The last few weeks he’s been improving. (Defensive line) Coach (Rodney) Garner’s had a good plan for him. He turned it loose and he played his best game (versus Ole Miss). It was a very complete game, not just rushing the passer, but against the run. If he keeps improving, he’s got a chance to be a really good player.”
It mirrors the vision that DeCristofaro foresaw during that initial practice two years ago. A successful career on the Plains is just the beginning for Lawson, though, at least in his former coach’s estimation. DeCristofaro expects to see Lawson gliding across the stage of the Radio City Music Hall during the NFL Draft one day in the not-so-distant future.
From there, there’s no limit on what Lawson can accomplish.
“When his time comes, he’ll get drafted,” he said. “There's no doubt in my mind if he stays healthy and stays out of trouble, that’ll happen. And the rest will be history.”