Shaq Lawson spearheads Clemson defense in historic rout of Miami

Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson has 5.5 sacks through seven games this season.

Wilfredo Lee/AP

Shaq Lawson has pulled off a minor miracle in 2015. He’s helped a college football program not only immediately recover from the departure of a top-10 pick, but forget the former star’s absence altogether.

The Vic Beasley replacement process was not supposed to look this seamless.

Beasley blossomed into one of the most feared pass-rushers in the country last season, racking up 12 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss en route to All-American honors. Scouts raved about his tangibles and he landed at the No. 8 draft slot with the Atlanta Falcons. Such departures — not to mention the loss of roughly 75 percent of the Tigers’ defensive starters — are supposed to be apparent, if not crippling. Top-10 picks are, by definition, extremely hard to come by.

Lawson, who has quietly been a disruptive force dating back to his freshman season, has made the process look mundane. He’s matched Beasley’s 2014 numbers stride for stride, and after a dominating performance against Miami, another multi-sack game in which he knocked Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya out of the game on a two-man pass rush, he’s on pace for his own first-round heyday.

The sixth-ranked Tigers blanked Miami 58-0 on Saturday afternoon, the first time the Hurricanes have been shutout since their final game in the Orange Bowl (2007). It was the most lopsided defeat in Miami’s program history, surpassing a 1944 clash with Texas A&M.

That didn’t leave much time for Lawson make his presence felt.

The one-sided affair served as an exclamation point for the banner-toting plane flying over Sun Life Stadium — the weekly aerial call for Miami coach Al Golden’s job, which was reportedly echoed by Hurricanes fans in attendance — and it allowed Clemson to rest its starters early in the second half. The Tigers, in a show of confidence, didn’t even head to the locker room at halftime. And yet, from the first quarter on, Lawson dominated.

Miami entered the game with an explosive passing offense behind Kaaya, but Clemson’s pressure immediately threw the efficient sophomore star out of sorts. The Hurricanes had committed just two turnovers on the season entering the game, but Kaaya misread Clemson’s coverage on the first drive and, hurried throughout the day behind an inexperienced offensive line, threw an interception. On Drive No. 3, Lawson put him on the ground for his first sack of the day.

On Drive No. 5, with Clemson rushing just two players and dropping nine into coverage, Lawson made his setup move to the outside, quickly shed left tackle KC McDermott with his move back inside, exploded past guard Alex Gall and delivered a shot to Kaaya:

Miami’s quarterback would not return to the game after reportedly suffering concussion-like symptoms. Already down 21-0, the Hurricanes’ offense could have called it a day right there. Miami finished the day with 146 total yards and three turnovers.

Lawson now has 5.5 sacks and he’s among the national leaders in tackles for loss. He’s not a one-man unit — fellow junior Kevin Dodd is enjoying a breakout season on the other side of the line while one of the five best corners in the country, Mackensie Alexander, anchors a play-making secondary — but if Beasley’s departure was the biggest question mark for this underestimated unit, then Lawson has been the loudest answer.

Advanced metrics love this Clemson defense … for good reason. Even before routing Miami out of its own stadium, the Tigers featured the fifth-most efficient defensive unit in the country. (That’s bound to improve.) Behind Lawson, the defensive line ranks in the top-10 in adjusted line yards and stuff rate, finds ways to pressure quarterbacks on standard downs and excels against the run in a variety of situations.

There was the feel of built-in misdirection during the preseason, with projected ACC Player of the Year Deshaun Watson’s offseason injury dominating headlines and, at the time, presumably dictating how far the Tigers could climb. However, that premise disregarded what defensive coordinator Brent Venable has built at Clemson.

This is no longer the program that wins barnburners (although it still can). The Tigers have held four of their six opponents under 20 points this season, and in the biggest test to date — a 24-22 last-second win over Notre Dame — Lawson manhandled potential first-round pick Ronnie Stanley and logged 3.5 tackles for loss against a top-10 team. He’s co-piloting a team that is poised to dethrone Florida State and make a run for the College Football Playoff.

Miami was the latest offense to find that out the hard way.