Why Is Trevor Lawrence Playing College Football?

The Clemson quarterback and Heisman favorite, seen by many as NFL-ready, is all but forced by the mechanisms of amateur sports to play for free.

Matthew Emmons / USA Today Sports / Reuters

Trevor Lawrence, the Clemson University sophomore quarterback, may be the best player in college football. As the 2019 season gets under way, he certainly has the brightest outlook. The Tigers, who in Lawrence’s debut last year went 15–0 and dismantled a historically potent University of Alabama team to win the national title, open as the favorites to repeat as champions. Lawrence, who stands 6 feet 6 inches tall, with a ready smile and a wave of yellow hair spilling from his helmet, has become the face of the sport, a Heisman Trophy front-runner at the helm of a potential dynasty. He is the type of player analysts refer to as generational, a legend poised to get more legendary.

Lawrence also has little to gain, materially speaking, from the coming season. Were it not for NFL rules prohibiting players less than three years removed from high school from entering the draft—and functionally requiring them to work for free in an NCAA that doubles as a minor-league system—he may well already be a professional. “Trevor Lawrence would be the clear-cut No. 1,” the ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. said before April’s draft, but Lawrence has two more seasons before he can test the hypothetical. In the meantime, he will chase records and championships, hope to avoid injury, and stir up further debate over a college-sports model increasingly seen as exploitative. He’s both the story of the upcoming season and a sign of the times, in which the NCAA’s brightest stars double as the best arguments against the way the institution works.

On the field, with his blend of talent and polish, Lawrence recalls last winter’s collegiate phenom, the Duke University basketball star Zion Williamson. Like Williamson, Lawrence has prodigious physical gifts that manifest during games as over-qualification. He flicks 15-yard out routes with ease. His downfield shots seem satellite-programmed. His footwork, throwing motion, field vision—all impeccable. Of an on-the-run, torso-wrenching strike that spanned 40 yards to hit the receiver’s chest pads in Clemson’s public offseason scrimmage in April, the head coach Dabo Swinney said, “There are maybe five guys on the planet who can make that throw.”

But to an even greater degree than Williamson, Lawrence’s time in college carries more risk than reward. When Williamson tore through a shoe and injured his knee in February, missing six games, fans argued about whether he might be wise to sit out the rest of the year and protect his health in advance of the NBA draft. Lawrence hasn’t yet had a similar flash-point moment—the head and neck injury he suffered in a September game against Syracuse University last season is, grimly, business as usual in football—but the nature of his sport brings more substantial hazard. This year’s top NFL pick, the quarterback Kyler Murray, signed a contract worth $35 million, a number Lawrence figures to match, but a shoulder or knee injury of the sort seen every week during football season could cause his draft position to slide, and his payday to dwindle.

In recent years, many top players have been proactive about protecting their self-interest, most notably by sitting out season-ending bowl games to avoid injury in the lead-up to the draft. The once-controversial measure has become something like standard practice; in December, West Virginia University’s Will Grier became the first big-name quarterback to forgo his final outing. The quickness of Lawrence’s ascent, though, has made his a unique case; to exercise real caution, he’d have to forgo entire seasons of college football. Pundits have recently entertained alternatives to the standard college-to-NFL route, such as Lawrence playing in the rebooted XFL, earning paychecks and signing endorsement deals while he waits for his NFL eligibility. Don Yee, the agent for Tom Brady and the founder of the upcoming Pacific Pro Football league, an outfit aimed in part at giving young players an NCAA alternative, has actively recruited Lawrence.

Temperamentally, Lawrence seems ill-suited to the role of revolutionary—a trait that, as much as his arm talent, surely pleases NFL brass. “I’m sitting here going into my sophomore year. It’s gone by so fast. I don’t want to speed anything up anymore,” he said in April, pushing back against the seeming consensus on his professional readiness. The plain facts of his talent and his inability to make money off of it, though, fit neatly into an era of growing skepticism about the ethics of nominally amateur college sports. Following the Lawrence-led championship victory in January, Clemson signed Swinney to a 10-year contract extension worth $93 million, bringing renewed attention to his history of advocating against player compensation. “He needs to acknowledge the fact that there’s only one reason that they’re able to pay him $9 million a year,” ESPN’s Bomani Jones said. “And that’s because they don’t pay the players.”

Tonight, when Clemson opens its season against Georgia Tech, Lawrence will play his first game since throwing three touchdowns on the sport’s biggest stage seven months ago. Late that evening, with his team up by 28 points in the closing minutes and confetti being readied in the rafters, he tucked the ball and ran left, into the thick of the Alabama defense. It was an unneeded risk in a game already settled, but he hammered forward for 12 yards and a first down. The play evinced the makeup that NFL team builders like to see: moxie, selflessness, competitive spirit. Lawrence showed, over the season and in the game, what he was made of, how bright his future could be. Now he’ll show it again, until that future arrives or gets cut short.