AUBURN, Ala. — Carl Lawson clicks through practice tape in one of the meeting rooms at Auburn’s football complex with the same focus and intensity that he rushes the passer.
He’s not just reviewing it. He’s digesting every morsel of it, clicking back and forth, looking for anything and everything that might make him a better, smarter and more complete football player.
“Carl’s a pro, and that’s the best way I know how to describe him,” said first-year Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who knows what a pro looks like when you consider all the first-round NFL draft choices he’s coached and his four years on the Carolina Panthers' staff as linebackers coach from 1995-98. “He approaches practice that way, film study that way, the way he interacts with the rest of the guys, everything. He’s always on and always pushing forward.”
It’s one of the reasons Lawson isn’t too keen on rehashing his past.
He’s entering his fourth year at Auburn, and just about anybody who’s tried to block Lawson will tell you he’s an absolute terror to block. Case in point: Former Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, projected to be one of the top picks in this year’s draft, said at the NFL scouting combine in February that Lawson was his toughest matchup in college.
Lawson is unfazed. He’s heard the accolades since the day he arrived on campus as one of the most coveted prospects in the country, but the fact remains that he’s only played in 21 games in three seasons because of injuries.
“It’s a hard game. We all know that, the survival of the fittest,” Lawson said. “So when you have things in the game that go against you, you don’t let them beat you. Nobody cares about what you were supposed to be or what you’ve had happen to you. This game’s about results and overcoming adversity.
“Of course, it’s been hard, real hard. All good players go through adversity. Nothing happens overnight for anybody. Everybody goes through adversity. It’s about how you handle it. You just keep trying to get bigger, stronger and faster and know you’re going to be back out there 100 percent.
“If anything, it’s toughened me up to be a better man, not just in football, but in life.”
This spring, there was a different vibe about Lawson. For one, he was healthy enough to participate in spring practice after missing six games last season with a cracked hip. He came back and played the final six games, but said he wasn’t close to 100 percent. Lawson heard his hip pop on the fifth play of the season opener against Louisville, adding another cruel chapter to his injury woes.
Two springs ago, Lawson tore the ACL in his left knee the final week of practice and missed the entire 2014 season. That came after he showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman with 7.5 tackles for loss, including four sacks.
“I could feel myself out there getting better this spring,” Lawson said. “I learned a lot of new things, explored a lot of things on my own. I had a long spurt of time where I had football in my life and I wasn’t hurt and actually got to finish the season. Even though I wasn’t completely healthy, I had football at the end of the season and feel like I’m developing at a higher rate because I’m getting that experience. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens when I translate it to an actual game.”
One of the areas where the 6-foot-2, 257-pound Lawson grew the most over the last year was in his film study and being better prepared to deal with opposing offenses.
“I felt in the Louisville game that I was able to see formations,” said Lawson, who had two tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries in the 31-24 win over the Cardinals last season. “That was the first time I was able to put strategic film work, being healthy, really just all of it, together. Before, I was constantly in rehab the whole time, mostly just trying to get back healthy.
“I felt that same way this spring. Besides going into my sophomore year, this is the most reps I’ve taken in the spring. Being able to finish the season and get a full spring and then carrying that over to (preseason) camp will be huge.”
That could be potentially bad news for everybody else in the SEC.
Auburn struggled to generate a pass-rush without him the last two seasons, and those seven games that he was in the lineup a year ago made a big difference for the Tigers. They gave up an average of 55.1 fewer yards per game and an average of 8.7 fewer points per game with Lawson on the field last season.
“He’s an impact player. He disrupts stuff and makes people around him better,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “I think had he been healthy the last two years, we’d be feeling a lot differently than we are right now. That’s how much he means to us. But he’s at his best right now and plays the run as well as he does the pass. A lot of pass-rushers, they don’t like it when you run at them. Carl likes it.”
Auburn senior offensive guard Alex Kozan said Lawson doesn’t have an off switch, and that goes for even when he’s sitting around his apartment.
“I might mention to him about a player I saw on tape and one of his moves, and he’s texting me in the middle of the night asking for me to send him a copy of that clip just so he can see the move,” Kozan said. “He’s so dedicated to his craft. He can be the best in the country if he stays healthy. He looks just as explosive, if not more so, before he got hurt.”
Ultimately, Lawson isn’t concerned about what anybody says, whether it’s his coaches and teammates talking about how dominant a player he could be or his skeptics questioning whether he will ever reach his full potential because of his inability to stay healthy.
“I don’t care what anybody else thinks,” Lawson said. “I have things I want to prove to myself, nobody else. I love football and want to help my team. That’s what is most important to me and the main reason I came back. I’ve been hurt so much here. I’ve been kept out of so much. I want to be able to practice and be a football player again.”