Mostly, anyway. "I changed positions, so it always takes a little time to adjust," Lawrence said. "The first couple of days they were installing a lot, I took time and learned it. The first couple of days were a little choppy but I'm coming around. I've been in my playbook every night and I think it's starting to show. I think Coach is starting to notice, and I feel more comfortable on the field now."
Of course Lawrence ought to be comfy out there in spring competition because he's had a taste of the real thing. A early-enrollee last spring, he earned the right to get on the playing field as a true fall freshman. Mostly as part of State's kicking coverage squads, a role anyone who'd watched him practice knew fitted Lawrence perfectly; but with a few appearances in the secondary as well.
Yet all the while Bulldog coaches were watching him work and saying, openly, this was a linebacker in the making. Now, in his second college spring, here Lawrence is in the position…and on the first-team at that. "Now I'm taking reps with the ones so you've got to dot your I's and cross your T's for sure," he said. He could just as easily said keep an eye on the ‘I' and cross-up the ‘T' whenever State's offense attempts to work out of those spring formations.
Sideline folk who said last year Lawrence looked like a linebacker would be even more correct this second time around. "I weigh 225 now, that's what they want me to stay around this year," he said. This after he arrived in January 2009 tipping the scales at maybe 210 pounds. Some of the gains are intentional, the rest just natural maturing of a young athlete who won't turn 20 years of age until next January. That's right, he was playing as a 18-year-old freshman, something increasingly rare in college football.
It speaks volumes for how quickly the Coldwater native caught-on when he passed on the spring semester in high school to come directly to college. It also is why he's performing so comfortably out there now.
"That was a big thing, the first year when I came out I was trying to learn stuff and keep my head above water. Now I feel I've got a little more experience under my belt and that helps tremendously."
Speaking of experience, though his freshman playing time was spent on special teams and safety, Lawrence got his first spring '09 test as a quarterback. Then, at wide receiver, before the mid-camp move over to defense. So this is just the latest change of address for Lawrence, as well as one that has come rather naturally. Though he admits, had he been a linebacker all along he probably wouldn't have gotten a shot at safety and learned the college game from that perspective.
"It's probably easier going from safety to linebacker. Because I was a bigger safety, I always liked coming down in the box, being closer to the ball. And the coverage part, at safety you're going to have to cover a little more than at linebacker. So that aspect, yeah, it helped a lot. It was a little easier transfer."
What also eased the transition was having an open job to move right into. The graduation of leading tackler Jamar Chaney resulted in shuffles of the two returning linebackers, with Chris White moving into the vacated middle spot and standout strong-side man K.J. Wright changing over to the weak side where his pass-rushing talents can be maximized. New coordinator and linebacker coach Manny Diaz wanted something new and someone different for his concept of a ‘sam' linebacker, and over the winter chose to shuffle Lawrence rather than just promote one of several veteran linebackers.
"Well, I think they put me there because at strong-side you're covering a little more than on the weak-side," Lawrence said. "And coming from safety, I was covering a lot of receivers. And I've put on a few pounds, so strong-side suits me better." By the way, it wasn't just Lawrence who moved. Diaz' themes and schemes are reinforced in that another backup safety, Emmanuel Gatling, has worked as second strong-side ‘backer this camp, too.
Practice results show the potential in this approach, though there have been the necessary learning steps and occasional stumbles. Not just for the sam-backers either; during Tuesday's full-team drills offensive coordinator Les Koenning had WR Brandon Heavens scoot in just under the linebackers' coverage area and get picked up by White…who with 70 more pounds to haul never had a chance to stay with the speedster. It showed the sorts of miss-matches Mississippi State wants to create on offense, as well as what Bulldog linebackers will have to watch for from other ‘spread' system opponents come fall.
"Yeah, you've got to get the matchups right, for sure," said Lawrence, who most often will cover H-backs, running backs, or tight ends. Though not the fastest defender in the starting squad Lawrence has sufficient speed and even better instincts that should provide that priceless jump on getting in the right place in the right time. If not, he will get an earful from a pair of experts beginning with his position coach who just also happens to be the overall coordinator.
Lawrence likes having Diaz for a boss, though. "That's definitely an advantage. For sure. He's the head man, he's going to be calling the shots. He knows what he's wanting so he tells us what he's looking for. And we're able to go out there and show him what he's wanting to see." Then there is the guy whose place Lawrence has assumed. Wright is watching him, closely.
"He does! I've got some shoes to fill for sure! But he's helping me out, if I have some questions I can go to him and he's right there for me if I need something."
By the same token Lawrence brings something, or rather some things, that Mississippi State wants in the defensive gameplan here in year-two of the Dan Mullen era. It's quite a show of faith to hand a key defensive job to a kid with no prior college experience at the position. Yet Lawrence is confident he can handle the assignment and the responsibility.
"Oh, football is one of those things where if you're up-tight you can't play at your best or bring your A-game. But being loose, you're able to calm down and slow things down and think about it, and that helps tremendously."