Upland's Lawler attracts attention

Kenny Lawler (0:00)

Kenny Lawler (0:00)

UPLAND -- Kenny Lawler emerges from the huddle at midfield, and immediately, the receiver hustles over to his position on the outside. The first order of business for the senior from Upland is taking a quick glance through his facemask to see what the defense has in store for him.

A cornerback moves right up in front of Lawler, seemingly with the intent to somehow disrupt the route with bump-and-run coverage. A linebacker takes a step to the immediate left, presumably in an effort to help slow down the burst of speed he possesses. A safety proceeds to roll over to his side of the field as well, in what figures to be an attempt to double-team him over the top.

No big deal. Lawler has seen plenty of this pre-snap shuffling in the not-so- distant past. Gimmick-type schemes designed around stopping him is something that simply comes along with territory, especially when you are considered as one of the Southland's premier players at the position.

“I don't think anything surprises me anymore. Honestly, nothing does,'' Lawler said.

With the ball set in motion, a stutter step at the line of scrimmage creates much-needed separation. A head-and-shoulders fake by Lawler freezes the would-be tackler at the second level. A sprint toward the end zone follows as he blows by the last line of defense in the secondary.

Lawler is celebrating seconds later, having hauled in another highlight-reel worthy touchdown catch. The opponent looks on, of course, wondering about what could have been.

Odds are, the 6-foot-3 and 185-pound senior will be in a similar situation in Friday's Southern Section Inland Division playoff game against Covina Charter Oak. And if the Highlanders hope to make a postseason run, Lawler must continue to excel in his role of being the difference-maker.

“I know I have a target on my back, I'm cool with that, it's a sign of respect,'' Lawler said. “My goal is to work hard, and when teams try to stop me, that's motivation. Nothing in life is easy. You'll never be able to accomplish anything if there isn't some kind of challenge put in front of you.''

Overcoming obstacles has become commonplace for Lawler considering playing time on the varsity level was difficult to come by in his first two years with the Highlanders. They were loaded with talent during his freshman and sophomore seasons. Nevertheless, Lawler managed to persevere.

When the opportunity to contribute on a more consistent basis presented itself as junior, he made sure to take advantage. And then some. Lawler emerged as the go-to-guy for Upland and finished with 42 catches for 887 yards, a 21 yards-per-catch average. He also had nine touchdowns.

Little has changed this time around. Lawler has been largely, although not solely responsible for the success of the Highlanders (11-0 overall), No. 8 in the latest ESPNLosAngeles.com Top 25 rankings.

“He had to bide his time, but once he figured out his role, there was no stopping Kenny,'' Upland coach Tim Salter said. “He makes plays that normal high school kids just don't make. His game is on a whole other level. Opposing coaches tell me all of the time that Kenny is one of the elite players in Southern California, and that right there, is the ultimate compliment. We're glad he's on our side.

“Kenny is a good route runner. He has a good understanding of where he needs to be on field. He has uncanny speed. Elevating to catch the ball comes naturally to him. He's made more one-handed catches than I can count. Kenny can take the ball to the end zone on a screen pass too.

“Honestly, he is more that just a great receiver. Kenny is great blocker. I have seen him put defensive backs, as well as linebackers and safeties, on their backs with pancake blocks a number of times. He understands what is expected of him and delivers for us week in and week out.''

For the naysayers out there, one need not look any further than Lawler's statistics this season for proof of his worth to Upland. Despite facing defenses geared toward stopping him with double, and often times triple coverage, he has 41 receptions for 952 yards and eight touchdowns.

In the playoff opener last week against upset-minded Murrieta Valley, Lawler put forth his best effort. The Knighthawks had no answer. He finished with 175 yards on four catches, slightly less than 44 yard per touch. Can't forget to mention his three touchdowns, 45, 55 and 60 yards.

Lawler has done an above-average job on the defensive side of the ball too.

His three interceptions and three pass deflections during his time in the secondary rank among the team leaders. Also worth mentioning is the fact Lawler has returned punts as well as kickoffs when called upon. He has been a jack-of-all trades for the coaching staff at Upland.

“His maturity is what sets him apart from his peers. He is advanced beyond his years,'' Salter said. “I'm not sure where we'd be without Kenny. I'm just glad we don't have to worry about it.''

Lawler compares rather favorably with his counterparts from the greater Los Angeles area. He ranks right up there with likes of Lakewood's Darius Powe, Inglewood's Derrick Woods, Bellflower St. John Bosco's Bryce Treggs and Oaks Christian's Jordan Payton.

College coaches and scouts alike have been keeping tabs on Lawler as a result.

He committed to Arizona State in mid-February. That glaring fact, however, has not slowed down the recruiting process. Not in the least. Lawler still has more than 10 scholarship offers on the table, several from schools within the Pac-12 Conference, most notably nearby UCLA.

“Lawler has a promising blend of size and speed to develop at the next level,'' said Billy Tucker, a national recruiting analyst for ESPN. “What really stands out is his savvy in knowing how to utilize his large frame, which should only improve as he adds bulk at the next level.

“He has good hands as well and the coveted body control for a taller receiver to adjust to the difficult grab and make the big redzone catch when needed. Lawler is not a burner, or real elusive runner after the catch, but we still feel this guy brings a lot to the table at the position.''

Lawler was on an official visit to Arizona State last weekend. He took a trip to Washington on Nov. 5. Plans are in the works for stops at Cal, Nebraska and Oregon State in the coming months. The Sun Devils remain at the top of his list.

In terms of his immediate future, Lawler does not appear overly concerned. His sole focus nowadays is taking care of business when the Friday night lights flicker from above.

“I'm not worried about the next level, there's plenty of time for that stuff,'' Lawler said. “If I take care of things on the field, everything else will work for me off the field.''

The strategy has worked out well so far.

Sean Ceglinsky covers preps for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.