Jets fans have a glimmer of hope. Something to look forward to other than another losing season.
This could be a winless campaign — the worst season in this franchise’s mostly ugly history — but there may be a prize waiting for Gang Green if 0-16 becomes a reality. Following the dreadful 1996 1-15 campaign under Rich Kotite, it was a Hall of Fame coach, Bill Parcells. In 2020, it may be a quarterback — a generational quarterback.
His name is Trevor Lawrence — the long blond-haired Heisman Trophy favorite from Clemson, a championship-winning 6-foot-6, 220-pound quarterback who has been considered the No. 1 pick in this draft for years, since he took Nick Saban’s Alabama defense behind the woodshed in the title game his freshman year.
He’s considered the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck in 2012, a player who can immediately lift a franchise. He entered college as the top-rated prospect in the country and has somehow surpassed the lofty hype that comes with that high ranking and the can’t-miss label.
“[John] Elway, Luck, Lawrence — they’re in that separate category,” Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN’s draft guru, told The Post.
Lawrence has the complete package, analysts, coaches and scouts The Post spoke with all agreed. On NFL Sundays, Tanking for Trevor has become a popular hashtag. He’s already said this will be his last year in college.
Let his coach, Dabo Swinney, break him down:
“You want size? You got it. You want a guy that can run? You got it,” he said over Zoom recently. “You want a guy that has a great football IQ? You got it. You want a guy that’s a great leader? You got it. You want a guy that loves to work, loves to prepare, same guy every day? You got it. You want a guy that’s humble? You got it.
“You want a guy that makes everybody else better, doesn’t ask anymore more from anybody that he’s willing to give? You got it.
“You want a guy that’s accurate? You got it. You want a guy that’s got great pocket presence? You got it. You want a guy that’s got toughness and ain’t afraid to go get a first down? You got it. You want a guy that’s going to give you every ounce of what he’s got? You got it.
“So I don’t know what you could want in a quarterback that he doesn’t possess.”
Lawrence has lost two games dating back to his sophomore year of high school. He’s played in four College Football Playoff games and has yet to throw an interception. He’s started 31 games at Clemson and lost once, produced 95 touchdowns through the air and on the ground, completed 66.7 percent of his passes and thrown 13 interceptions. He has elite-level arm strength and can break the pocket when it is required — his 107 rushing yards in the playoff victory over Ohio State last year is one example — while his ability to read defenses has improved considerably.
“Most quarterbacks only do one of those things well,” Virginia defensive coordinator Nick Howell said. “He does all three of those things at a high level.”
North Carolina coach Mack Brown said Lawrence is “one of the best to ever play” at the college level, and he coached Heisman runner-up Vince Young at Texas. Kiper doesn’t have any concerns about Lawrence at the next level, citing his physical gifts, leadership qualities and football IQ.
Former Giants quarterback and SiriusXM college football analyst Danny Kanell said with most quarterbacks drafted in the first round there is a 50/50 chance of them reaching their ceiling. He raised that to 80/20 with Lawrence, and the 80 was him being a Hall of Fame-type player.
Swinney compared him favorably to two-time NFL Pro Bowl quarterback and former Clemson star Deshaun Watson, noting Lawrence is 3 inches taller and has a bigger arm. The same characteristics that have turned Watson into an NFL star with the Texans — his physical talent combined with his leadership ability and relentless work ethic — Lawrence shares. Like Watson, he’s on pace to graduate in three years.
“I don’t know if I would ever coach another guy like Deshaun that just loved to prepare and is focused on being great that he doesn’t get distracted by other things,” Swinney said. “And Trevor and Deshaun are the exact same.”
In Lawrence’s first two seasons, the Cartersville, Ga., native was surrounded by incredible talent, with 13 teammates taken in the NFL draft. This year, he lost four starting offensive linemen and his two best receivers. Nevertheless, he is off to his best start, with 15 touchdown passes, one interception and a 73 percent completion mark. The Heisman Trophy is his to lose.
In arguably the biggest moment of his career, as a true freshman facing Alabama, Lawrence threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns in a rout. He followed that up by leading Clemson back to the national title game.
“He can do everything that everyone else can do at a higher level — and he’s a championship winner,” an AFC scout said. “He is a can’t-miss guy. When you have talent the way he has it, production the way he has it, character the way he has it, that’s usually why you are a can’t miss.”
George Whitfield Jr. — the personal quarterback coach for Luck during his rise and a longtime private quarterback tutor who has worked with Cam Newton, Donovan McNabb and Jameis Winston — gives his former pupil the slight edge over Lawrence in arm strength and development at this stage. But Whitfield said Lawrence is the better athlete, and he hasn’t seen a quarterback prospect since Luck that compares with Lawrence.
“You take the sum total of what he is right now — tall statement — I think he’s one of the 20 best quarterbacks in all of football,” Whitfield said.
Whitfield has been most impressed with the strides Lawrence is making in terms of his on-field maturity. Stanford coach David Shaw used to rave about how Luck would make up for a bad play call or an offensive lineman missing a block by making the best out of nothing. He could avoid a sack and throw the ball away or use his legs for a short gain instead of committing the big mistake. Live to make another play instead of creating a bigger hole.
“Someone who lacks maturity is going to try to cowboy their way out of it. And now instead of third-and-10, it’s third-and-25 because they wanted to be Superman in that moment as opposed to a first responder,” Whitfield said. “That’s what I’m watching now when I’m watching Trevor. Mitigating damage is everything.”
Forget for a moment the rocket arm. Put the ridiculous statistics, his nearly unblemished record and his physical prowess aside. Lawrence’s greatest trait might be his desire — his competitive fire.
It was evident in last year’s semifinal playoff win over Ohio State when he responded to a big hit by rallying Clemson back from a 16-point deficit. It was seen in a scuffle during an intramural basketball game, when Lawrence didn’t like a hard screen being set and pushed his opponent to the floor. He detests losing.
“That’s the type of mentality you want from your starting quarterback, not somebody cowering in fear because you get hit a few times,” Kanell said. “You want a guy that responds in a big way and that’s what Trevor Lawrence does.”
Kiper often measures that intangible quality in players. It was why he was so high on Bills quarterback Josh Allen coming out of Wyoming. It can often be the difference between a prospect flaming out or thriving at the next level. How much does the player want to be great? How hard will he work to make it happen? After his streak of 366 passes without an interception was snapped last Saturday against Georgia Tech, Lawrence said his goal was not to throw a pick all year.
“To determine greatness in the NFL is how competitive you are,” Kiper said. “Everybody who plays college football is competitive. It’s are you a six, seven, eight, nine or a 10? Josh Allen is a 10. Trevor is considered to be close to that 10-range. That for me is a big indication if a player has bust potential is how competitive and how much you love the game.”
The one red flag evaluators raised — strength of schedule — is out of his control. In his time at Clemson, the ACC has been abysmal, lacking a true challenger to the powerhouse Tigers. Lawrence hasn’t lost a game in the league. In games he’s started, Clemson is 23-0 against conference foes. Just two of those contests have been single-possession games and he only played a quarter in one of them. He often doesn’t play in the fourth quarter.
He has essentially had four challenging games, and two of those were blowout victories in the playoff as a freshman. Last year was a different story, needing to rally Clemson past Ohio State in the semifinals before falling short in the title game against LSU, his lone loss as a collegian. In both games, Ohio State and LSU played press coverage and were able to pressure Lawrence, who completed just 51.4 percent of his passes in those games.
“You can make the argument Justin Fields outplayed him in that playoff game, and [against] LSU he didn’t look like he could figure out what they were doing to him defensively,” NFL Network analyst and former NFL scout Bucky Brooks said. “I think that would be a cause for concern.”
Of course, that LSU team went undefeated in the rugged SEC and had 14 players drafted, six off its defense. The flip side is Clemson was loaded, too.
“I don’t think you can excuse it that way, ‘Oh, it was the LSU defense.’ He didn’t play well against LSU after playing pitch-and-catch all year in the ACC against outmanned opponents,” Kiper said. “That’s the only red flag. … That’s why I really want to see him this year [in the playoff].”
LSU was able to disguise coverages to confuse Lawrence while getting him out of his comfort zone with different blitz packages, former defensive coordinator and current Baylor head coach Dave Aranda said. It was similar to Ohio State’s game plan, except LSU was able to limit Lawrence to 49 rushing yards.
Yet, even after the loss Lawrence impressed those around him by how he handled defeat. He was gracious, crediting LSU while owning his own subpar performance. ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit recalled a conversation the two had in which Lawrence talked about how much he learned from that game, perhaps more than any of his many wins and brilliant performances. He bottled up the disappointment and used it as motivation in the offseason, and has come back by starting off as if he was shot out of a cannon.
“It just kind of tells you a little bit about how he’s wired,” Herbstreit said.
A peek into his character was revealed this spring during the pandemic. Lawrence helped organize a peaceful campus protest in support of social justice, has spoken up on social media in support of teammates in the Black Lives Matter movement and was part of a national group of college football players calling out racial injustice and the need for change on college campuses. For a self-described “white guy from a small town in Georgia,” it was eye-opening, and for teams considering him as the future face of their organization, reassuring. To Lawrence, it was important he showed those close to him their plight mattered to him.
“I think the way I operate and the way I try to live my life and treat other people is just to treat people how I want to be treated,” he said over Zoom this week.
“I think that maturity is something that will make an owner, a general manager and a head coach feel very, very comfortable handing him the keys to their franchise,” Brooks added.
There are no locks. Lawrence could get hurt. The Jets could win a few games. Sam Darnold could flash some potential upon returning from injury that sways the Jets. But as of right now, it seems like the two are destined for each other, the can’t-miss prospect and the going-nowhere franchise.
There’s no reason to believe Lawrence would disappoint. He’s been under the microscope since he was a high school underclassman, ranked No. 1 in his class as a sophomore — the same spot he’s in five years later.
“To maintain that grade all the way through,” Kiper said, “is something nobody does unless you’re an Andrew Luck. John Elway did it.”
Jets fans can only hope that if this marriage does happen, it has a similar impact on the franchise as that coach did following the brutal 1996 season. Upon his arrival, Parcells changed everything about the Jets. Perhaps Lawrence could do the same