Friday Night Files: 2020 Tennessee DB commit Keshawn Lawrence
First and foremost, Keshawn Lawrence is an outstanding athlete. At six foot one inch tall and two hundred five pounds, Lawrence has a frame and build that allows him to play in any role in the secondary. Lawrence is most often lined up at safety for the Tigers, and that is where most analysts have projected him playing at the next level, though he does also play corner for them. To be frank, Lawrence has all of the accolades and notoriety that he has accrued for good reason. As a safety, he is capable of covering a lot of ground in coverage. While his forty time at the Opening wasn’t blistering, it was fast enough, and Lawrence plays faster than he times. That speed shows up time and again on film. When called on to play free safety, Lawrence demonstrates the ability to take good angles to the ball, cover significant yardage, and play the ball well in the air when he arrives. Lawrence is a good hitter as a safety, and he is willing and able to lower the boom on opponents when it is called for, but his ball skills are what separate him at the position. His speed and fluid hips allow Lawrence to turn and run to arrive where the ball is going, but his long, rangy frame and ability to high point the ball allow him to go up and knock passes away or come down with interceptions. If he were only a ball-hawking, excellent coverage free safety, Lawrence would still carry a high grade, but there is much more to his game.
Lawrence is an exceptional tackler. He has good form, is reliable, and regularly gets his man to the ground in open space. While that is expected of a safety, things run a little deeper schematically for Lawrence in this area. Ensworth runs additional defensive backs in their base defense. It is a unique alignment for a base look, but the Tigers have the athletes to make it work, while they also feel it allows them to get their best players on the field together. Where this becomes import for defensive backs like Lawrence is in the way that they are asked to tackle. Against teams with potent running games, the Tigers play their defense, relying on their defensive backs to come up and make tackles that most teams would expect to be handled by much larger linebackers. The standard of tackling for defensive backs is required to be higher at Ensworth, the defense is built on it, and Lawrence is one of the players that exemplifies that. He is a sound tackler in space on receivers, when bringing down a receiver over the middle after a catch, and when he steps up to support the run. Lawrence is capable of delivering jarring, tooth-rattling hits, but he more often opts for a sure-form tackle. Rarely do players get out of Lawrence’s grip, and that is one of the defining characteristics of an excellent defender. To put it another way, when Lawrence gets his hands on a ball carrier, the overwhelming majority of the time, the play is over immediately thereafter. That means that Lawrence is an asset in pass coverage as well as in run support. When his ability to read a play and diagnose it quickly is factored in, that makes him even more impressive. Still, it was a play where Lawrence didn’t make a tackle that ended up standing out to me.
Early in the second half, Balor running back Elijah Howard broke into the open field on what was already going to be a long run. As Howard ate up yards going downfield, the only player that stood between him and his second, long touchdown run of the game was Lawrence. It was a situation that pitted two of the premier players in the game, one on each side, directly against one another with huge implications on the line. The two future Volunteers and close friends came to a meeting in the open field. The sure tackling Lawrence was forced to break down and attempt to tackle the staggeringly elusive Howard in the open field, where Howard is at his very best. The moment seemed to stretch watching live, but it was over in a second. Howard served up the filthiest moves he showed on a night when he was on his A-game, and he juked his way by a stumbling Lawrence who was grasping, trying to catch the Red Raider back from the ground, but to no avail. Howard would go on to score a long touchdown to put Baylor ahead. Now, would Lawrence like to have that play back? Undoubtedly, because it did not end the way he wanted it to. Though he got beat in that situation, it was what he did after that play that left me hugely impressed.
It would have been easy for Lawrence to hang his head, to pack it in, or to let Howard shaking him down get into his head the next time the two squared up. Instead, Lawrence showed mental toughness and focus. He let that play go, left it in the past, and focused on the remaining opportunities he had. He could have let that run serve as a backbreaker, but instead, he handled it like a great fighter handles a hook square to the jaw; He bit down, took the blow, and continued on, looking for a chance to answer. Later in the quarter, Lawrence got his chance. Baylor was driving and had entered the red zone. Howard looked like he was unstoppable and the feeling in the stadium was that another touchdown was a forgone conclusion. Baylor ran Howard to the wide side of the field, he had space, a full head of steam, and good blocking. Again, the only thing between Howard and the endzone was Lawrence. This time, Lawrence attacked Howard and broke down just as he had before. Howard gave him another knee-buckling shake, but Lawrence reached out, grabbed Howard, and wrestled him down for a big loss. That play put the Red Raiders behind the sticks, and it kept them out of the endzone. That was one of the standout plays of the game in my evaluation, because for all his physical gifts, here, Lawrence showed his focus, mental toughness, and leadership. These are qualities he has shown as he has remained firmly committed to Tennessee through a historically bad start to the season. These are also qualities that the current Vols are in desperate need of.
Make no mistake, Keshawn Lawrence is an incredibly gifted athlete. He is as complete and versatile a defensive back as there is, with the ability to play either safety at a high level or to bump out and be a ferocious, physical, shut down corner. Lawrence has all the ability, but he also has the attitude to play corner and the understanding of the overall defense to be an accomplished safety. More than that, he has a mental toughness that the Vols are desperate to infuse into their team. Lawrence is the kind of player that can get punched in the mouth, grin back at you, and deliver the combination of blows he needs to put a fight away. That stone-jawed boxer’s mentality and mental fortitude allow him the chance to change what Tennessee has seen in recent years. Players like Lawrence are the kind of young men that can change the culture and mindset of the team. His attitude and leadership coming off a disappointing loss will be one of the reasons that Ensworth can fight back and get their season back on track. That attitude has already marked him out a leader among his future teammates in Tennessee’s 2020 class. That is a role that he should cement once he arrives on campus, where his skill and mentality should not only allow him to make an immediate impact for the Vols, but they will also offer him the opportunity to take a leading role in instilling a new mindset into the program.
Matt Ray is the managing content editor for VR2. He founded VR2 in November of 2017. He is an FWAA Member and covers Tennessee prospects across the country from the Opening Regional Camp series to Under Armour All-American game and everything in between.