Yet the best defensive line signee he has seen, Swinney said, didn't step onto the Tigers' practice fields until this spring.
That's how good Shaq Lawson has been. The D.W. Daniel product suffered through some delayed gratification, but it has been well worth the wait. Following a semester at Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy, Lawson has established himself as one of the Tigers' top defensive ends.
"He's transferred what we've seen in practice in the game," Swinney said Tuesday. "He's special. He might be the best guy we've signed as a freshman since I've been here. As far as a true freshman, where he is physically, mentally, all that stuff. His upside is tremendous."
Lawson was considered one of the state of South Carolina's top overall prospects when he originally signed with Clemson in February 2012. But the NCAA didn't clear him academically, forcing a semester at Hargrave.
Instead of fighting off a redshirt season in Clemson, he was parade marching in uniform at 6 a.m., hours from home.
"I never thought I'd be in the military," he said. "I worked hard every day. I had to do things a certain way, the way they wanted."
Lawson arrived at Clemson as the nation's top prep school prospect. Between his Hargrave experience , the death of his father in an April 2011 car accident and going through spring practice with his new teammates, the past two years have made him a far more seasoned and mature person.
"I became more of a man," Lawson said.
"I think he grew up," Swinney said. "I think all of us, to appreciate what we have, we have to lose it or have it taken away from us, or be in danger of losing it. It's a cruel irony of life.
"He thinks he's coming to Clemson. The next thing he knows, he's wearing a uniform, living in Virginia, not what he'd planned on. I think he'd be the first to tell you, the maturity process he went through, the appreciation for what he has, I think he grew in all those areas. It helped him tremendously from time he got here. He's had great appreciation for this opportunity."
How impressive was Lawson this summer? Just before the season opener against Georgia, defensive ends coach Marion Hobby came to Swinney with a conundrum. He had three starting defensive ends – junior Vic Beasley, junior Corey Crawford and Lawson. Swinney said a tie went to the veterans, giving Beasley and Crawford the nod.
"I wanted to see him transfer it from the practice field to the game field. It was a tie between he and Vic coming out of practice," Swinney said. "I told Vic that, too. Go perform, because big boy's on your heels right here. You're all going to play but running out first is a big deal for these guys. It's been fun, because he's (transferred it)."
Swinney loves Lawson's emotion and energy, which he brings consistently to every practice.
"He loves to play," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "That's the first thing. Believe it or not, not everyone loves to play. Most guys don't love to play. They might love to make the big play, but they don't love to play. Shaq loves to practice, he's a high-motor guy that likes to compete, he chases the football, and then he's got ability."
Through three games, Lawson has 11 tackles, 4.5 for loss. He picked up his first career sack at N.C. State, showing impressive burst into the Wolfpack's backfield.
Venables said Lawson was "a little timid" and "a little bit on his heels early," but such nervousness has faded quickly.
"The more a young guy like him plays, the more he'll make mistakes along the way, but he's gaining in confidence, aggressiveness, his understanding," Venables said. "He's getting more sure of himself so he's quicker, playing with better pad level, so he's a natural, instinctive guy that can bend, change direction. He's got great natural strength. You see some of his physical talent starting to show up. …. Like you'd hope he's taking these huge leaps in his confidence. Coach Hobby is doing a great job bringing him along early."
Even better than Bowers, a former No.1 national recruit who led Clemson with 47 tackles as a freshman in 2008.
"I haven't been around freshmen like him," Swinney said. "Da'Quan, his transition wasn't as easy, although he had a great freshman year. Shaq big-time gets it. He has great practice habits for a young player. Sometimes freshmen come in, they have to transition to the practice routine, absorbed everything very well. He practices hard, plays with passion, works his butt off in the weight room, does what needs to at Vickery Hall. He has an energy to him."
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