Rashard Lawrence had a little more spring in his step last Saturday night.
Finally feeling 100 percent from the lower leg injuries that plagued him the past two seasons, LSU’s senior defensive end celebrated by playing a key role in the Tigers’ 55-3 season-opening pounding of Georgia Southern.
It certainly was a long time coming for the 6-foot-3, 317-pound Monroe native.
He played as long as he could on a badly sprained ankle in 2017, which eventually sidelined him for two games, and last February had a surgical procedure on his right knee.
After missing all of spring ball, Lawrence was on the field in early August but missed a few preseason practices here and there for what he said were “little nicks and bruises.”
But when the lights went on Saturday, Lawrence, a two-time Southeastern Conference Academic Honor Roll pick and a well-respected player who was voted a permanent team captain after his sophomore and junior seasons, was ready from the jump.
After helping force Georgia Southern’s tricky triple-option offense into two three-and-outs to start the game, Lawrence personally blew up the Eagles’ third possession.
He sacked Shai Werts for a 12-yard loss and forced a fumble which inside linebacker Patrick Queen scooped up and returned to the Georgia Southern 26 to set up a fourth consecutive touchdown for the LSU offense.
When LSU and Texas lock horns Saturday night (OK, maybe not the best choice of phrase) it will be a game with national championship contenders…
“Yeah, I feel great,” a smiling Lawrence said Tuesday. “I had a couple nicks and bruises in camp, but it was nothing bad. So, those days (off) definitely helped.
“Now, I’m going out every day … going hard and feeling good.”
It couldn’t have come at a better time for the five-star recruit who was rated as the No. 2 overall prospect in the state for the 2016 class on the 247Sports composite list.
With the opener against Georgia Southern in the rearview mirror, Lawrence and No. 6-ranked LSU began honing in this week on the long-awaited showdown with ninth-ranked Texas in Austin on Saturday night.
After preparing for the triple-option, the Tigers will see a more traditional offense this week with a drop-back passer in the Longhorns’ Sam Ehlinger although he’s a dual-threat quarterback as well.
“It’s not going to be hard to switch back; we would go against our offense every day in practice even when we were preparing for Georgia Southern,” Lawrence said. “We see that kind of offense every day.”
Ehlinger threw for 3,292 yards and 25 TDs with five interceptions and rushed for 482 yards and 16 scores a year ago in steering Texas to a 10-3 mark and a win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, but averaged just 12.6 carries a game.
“He’s more of a situational guy,” Lawrence said. “They’re not going to run him 30 times like some teams do. He’s a situational guy, so we're going to have to be on our technique and fundamentals to really stop him.”
When LSU quarterback Joe Burrow committed to Ohio State, he never expected to one day play against Tom Herman, the man who recruited him there, in a game of such importance.
Still, he said, they’ll have to be ready for a lot more speed against this offense.
“It’s going to be a lot of running for us, but we're excited for it as a defensive line because we'll be able to get out in space,” Lawrence said. “We’ll really get to help out on the edges and get to the ball.”
He did that more than ever in LSU’s 10-3 season a year ago.
Lawrence started every game and finished with career-highs in tackles (54), tackles for loss (10½) and sacks (four).
Each of those numbers surpassed his career totals from his first two seasons when he had 38 tackles, 4½ tackles for loss and 2½ sacks.
Lawrence capped a productive junior season by being named the Fiesta Bowl's defensive MVP. He recorded five tackles — four for loss — with a pair of sacks to help snap UCF's 25-game winning streak.
Now, he's ready to build on that opener against Georgia Southern in a huge game against Texas, which is one of the reasons he returned to school even though he was a projected second- or third-round NFL draft pick.
“We have a lot of pressure on us to be great, but that’s not the narrative of where we are,” Lawrence said when asked if it’s a must-win game. “We’re not going to make this a big LSU-Texas thing. We’re going to play us and do us.
“It’s a big game, we all know that. But we’ll be ready to play and I think we’re going to be locked in.”