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Clemson freshman Trevor Lawrence looks for his Deshaun Watson-like moment in College Football Playoff

In the early days of January, shortly after Clemson lost to Alabama in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff, the quarterback who would pilot the Tigers back to the playoff enrolled in classes. Trevor Lawrence graduated early from high school in the exurbs of Atlanta, where he claimed ownership of the state record for passing yards and held the mantle as the nation’s top recruit. He seemed more prototype than prospect — he stood 6 feet 6, possessed an accurate arm and useful legs, and wore his blond hair to his shoulders.

“You can see it when a kid has that ‘it’ factor and is special,” Tigers co-offense coordinator Jeff Scott told reporters this week. “And you know, he probably was a little bit further along when he came in January than we were expecting.”

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The arrival of Lawrence prompted an early-season quarterback controversy. His ability prompted Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney to bench Kelly Bryant, who was 16-2 as a starter, in the midst of an undefeated season. Lawrence’s performance catalyzed No. 2 Clemson to one of its most productive offensive seasons in recent memory, en route to a matchup with No. 3 Notre Dame in a College Football Playoff semifinal Saturday at the Cotton Bowl.

With Lawrence behind center, the Tigers offense combined explosiveness with efficiency. Clemson set a school record with a 590-point season. The team scored 40 points in six of his nine starts. In their final eight games of the season, the Tigers averaged a 38-point margin of victory. Lawrence threw 24 touchdowns and only four interceptions, none of them in the red zone.

“He’s really just gotten better every week,” said fifth-year senior wide receiver Hunter Renfrow. “That’s the thing I would say about Trevor, every week, he’s come and he’s gotten better.” Renfrow commended Lawrence for how the freshman “slowed everything down, how he was able to process everything, and really just command the attention of the team.”

This marks the fourth consecutive season in which Clemson reached the final four. The three prior trips all included dates with No. 1 Alabama, which looms on the other side of the bracket, matched up with No. 4 Oklahoma. With the Tigers considered a double-digit favorite against the Fighting Irish, a rematch looks likely.

Though Lawrence in September displaced Bryant, who transferred to Missouri, the quarterback he draws comparison to more often is former Tiger Deshaun Watson. Lawrence broke the Georgia records set by Watson. During the next two weeks, Lawrence aims to repeat the feat completed two years ago, when Watson led Clemson to its first national title since 1981.

“You got Deshaun, and you were like, ‘Man, we might not ever see one like Deshaun,’ ” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “And here comes Trevor.”

At the outset of the season, Swinney chose Bryant as his first-string quarterback, but rotated Lawrence into action. Lawrence threw a 64-yard touchdown against Texas A&M in the second game of the season. Three weeks later, he flung four touchdown passes in a rout of Georgia Tech. Heading into a game against Syracuse, Swinney declared Lawrence the full-time starter, which prompted Bryant to leave the program.

The new era did not start well: Lawrence departed in the second quarter against the Orange with concussion-like symptoms, but the Tigers held on to stay unbeaten. Lawrence returned a week later in a 63-3 destruction of Wake Forest, beginning a two-month stretch of dominance. He finished the season with 2,606 yards passing and a 65% completion rate.

“He works hard,” offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt said. “He works harder than anyone else on the team. He’s always studying film, always studying something. It’s fun to see him mature.”

Lawrence has already taken several steps in Watson’s footsteps, from the record books in Georgia to the playoffs with Clemson. Watson led the Tigers to a title as a junior. Lawrence might do the same — as a freshman.

“It's been awesome, just what we’ve done and the success we’ve had,” Lawrence said. “But, yeah, there’s been some crazy things and tough things happen along the way. But I think everything has just grown us together. And we’ve all driven towards that common purpose. We got a team full of guys that love each other and want to play for each other. And it helps a lot.”

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