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Jun 14, 2021

A First at No. 1

By: Ross Taylor

Trevor Lawrence’s selection with the No. 1 overall pick kicked off a historic 2021 NFL Draft for Clemson

Note: The following appears in the June issue of Orange: The Experience. For full access to all of the publication’s content, join IPTAY today by calling 864-656-2115.

At 8:25 p.m. ET on Thursday, April 29, Clemson history was made in almost anticlimactic fashion, as quarterback Trevor Lawrence, whose ascent to top pick status seemed preordained by the public since his days as a prep star in Cartersville, Ga., became the first No. 1 overall pick in Clemson Football history when he was selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars atop the 2021 NFL Draft.

Lawrence became the third No. 1 overall pick in Clemson Athletics history, joining baseball’s Kris Benson (1996) and men’s soccer’s Robbie Robinson (2020). Lawrence’s selection joined top-five selections Philip Mayaka (No. 3) and Kimarni Smith (No. 4) from Clemson’s men’s soccer program in the MLS SuperDraft earlier this year to make 2021 Clemson Athletics’ first year with three top-five picks across all sports.

Shortly after his selection, Lawrence was asked what his outgoing message to Clemson fans would be.

“First of all, thank you,” Lawrence said. “You guys have made my experience here at Clemson the best I could ever imagine. Coming into school, never would’ve dreamed of being at this point but also the success that we had and just the support — aside from the success — the support you showed week in and week out in everything we do. On top of that, being the first No. 1 pick from Clemson, there’s been so many great players come through Clemson, that’s obviously special to me, and I don’t take that lightly. It just shows we kind of made history ever since I’ve been at Clemson and it’s been awesome to be a part of that with Coach Swinney and all my teammates and just to continue to do that.”

Even if Lawrence’s selection was merely a formality in the eyes of the viewing public, it provided the humble superstar a moment of finality and gave friends, family, teammates, coaches and others the opportunity to celebrate his accomplishment at his draft watch party in Seneca. It represented a celebratory moment so grand that even a famous Gamecock alum was basking in the reflected glory, as Lawrence’s selection came in front of award-winning musician Darius Rucker, who was in attendance as co-founder of MGC Sports, the agency now representing Lawrence.

The mood was joyous but not unexpected. Instead, the unexpected came nearly two hours later at 11:19 p.m., when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced from his leather chair on-stage in Cleveland that the Jaguars had used their second pick in the first round to select running back Travis Etienne at No. 25 overall.

Like that, two men who had shared the backfield for the last three years and combined to win the last three ACC Player of the Year awards learned they’d be together again.

“Welcome to Jacksonville!” a stunned-yet-excited Lawrence exclaimed to @ClemsonFB cameras at his draft watch party and celebration. “Oh my gosh, I can’t wait, dude. Let’s go to work.”

With Lawrence and Etienne both being selected by the Jaguars in the first round, the duo became the quarterback/running back duo from a single school ever drafted by the same team in the first round of an NFL Draft in the Common Draft era (since 1967). It also gave Clemson multiple first-round picks in three straight drafts, one of only two schools to accomplish that feat from 2019-21.

Lawrence and Etienne were introduced to the Jacksonville media in a press conference at Jacksonville’s TIAA Bank Field the following afternoon, as Etienne shared his surprise and delight at being selected by the Jaguars after wishing for that exact outcome. A reporter posed the question: why did Etienne want to end up in Jacksonville?

“Well, I knew Trev was coming here,” Etienne said to a chorus of laughter. “You’d have to be pretty crazy not to want to play with Trevor Lawrence.”

The duo’s Duval County coronation on Friday preceded Rounds 2-3 of the draft that evening. Two more Tigers learned their professional fates that evening, with one fielding a local call and another speaking his dream scenario into existence.

Offensive tackle Jackson Carman watched the second round from his family home in Fairfield, Ohio, a Cincinnati suburb whose high school is fewer than 25 miles from the Bengals’ stadium. The Bengals selected the Fairfield native in the second round with the No. 46 overall pick, making Carman the highest-selected offensive lineman from Clemson in 50 years. Carman’s selection by the Bengals represented the second straight draft in which a Clemson player was selected by his home state team, as Atlanta’s A.J. Terrell was selected by the Falcons in 2020.

A reporter from Cincinnati’s NBC station was on-site at Carman’s watch party to capture the moment the big Ohioan was selected. Video coverage that night shows Carman fielding the phone call from Bengals Head Coach Zac Taylor, followed by celebration from friends and family upon Carman hanging up the phone. After the cheers and hugs subsided, those in attendance were still unsure of which team had called to draft him. Carman stood up and announced to the room, “It’s Cincinnati,” setting off an even-louder explosion of cheers.

Attention then turned to the newest torchbearers in the lineage of NFL products from “Wide Receiver U.” In March, former NFL wide receiver Brandon Marshall asked Clemson wide receiver Amari Rodgers what his dream draft scenario would be. Rodgers — who won the 2020 Bourret Award from Clemson as the football player who best represented himself, his team and the university in the media — answered succinctly, “I’ll say second round to the Packers.”

His exact scenario didn’t come to fruition, as the second round passed without Rodgers’ name being called. However, with Rodgers still on the board in the latter half of the third round, Green Bay shipped the No. 92 overall pick and an additional fourth-round selection to Tennessee to move up seven spots to No. 85.

Watching with family and friends in Dandridge, Tenn., a tearful Rodgers immediately embraced members of his family upon hearing his name called with that selection.

“We paid a little bit of a price but I thought it was important because of the value of the player I wanted,” Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst said. “He fills so many holes for us. That’s one of the reasons why we traded up for him. Not only as a punt returner and a slot receiver, but the creativity that [Packers Head Coach] Matt [LaFleur] has within his offense… He’s just built for us up here in Green Bay.”

Clemson’s fifth and final selection came in the fifth round on Saturday, when the two-time defending AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs selected wide receiver Cornell Powell, the fifth-year senior who was a breakout star for Clemson in 2020.

“Production-wise, he had a monster year this year, but leading up to that, the production wasn’t always there,” Chiefs General Manager Brett Veach said. “This year, he really kind of tapped into that potential, and if you look at the second half of his season last year, that was as good as any wideout in the country.”

The selections of Rodgers and Powell gave Clemson 11 draft picks at the wide receiver position since the 2013 NFL Draft, the most of any program in the country. Clemson’s six-draft streak with at least one receiver selected is the nation’s longest, and the Tigers have now produced a receiver in eight of the last nine NFL Drafts, dating to DeAndre Hopkins’ selection in 2013.

With the vast majority of Clemson’s 2020 defense returning for the upcoming season, the 2021 NFL Draft was a historical anomaly for Clemson in terms of the distribution of offensive and defensive picks. The 2021 NFL Draft marked the first time Clemson’s entire draft class came from the offensive side of the ball since tight end Bennie Cunningham, running back Don Testerman, wide receiver Craig Brantley and offensive tackle Gary Alexander comprised Clemson’s 1976 NFL Draft class.