Shaq Lawson on early draft decision: 'I wanted to get it off my chest'

Clemson's Shaq Lawson enters the Oklahoma game with a nation-leading 22.5 tackles for loss. AP Photo/Richard Shiro

Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson took more than a few people by surprise last week when he declared his intentions to enter the NFL draft.

It was not the decision itself that was the shocker. Rather, it was the timing of his announcement.

Generally speaking, underclassmen weighing their options usually wait until after bowl season to make a formal announcement. Among the four teams in the College Football Playoff, Lawson is the only underclassman to declare for the NFL draft so far. Alabama alone has at least five players who could leave school early. So why did Lawson decide to make his intentions known well before taking on Oklahoma on Dec. 31 in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl?

"I wanted to get it off my chest," Lawson told ESPN.com's Sam Khan from the Lombardi Award ceremony in Houston. "I had my mind made up a couple weeks ago. I just didn't want it to be a distraction during the regular season. I feel like I'm ready to make that next step. I'm just going to miss Clemson so much. I appreciate them for everything they did for me and all the coaches and staff and support around Clemson."

Perhaps having the decision out in the open will allow Lawson to play looser, without an impending decision weighing him down. Coaches often worry about whether draft decisions become a distraction for their players (cough, cough Nick Saban). There will be no distractions for Lawson, who became a dominating force his junior season after replacing Vic Beasley in the starting lineup.

Lawson enters the Oklahoma game with a nation-leading 22.5 tackles for loss. ESPN NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. lists Lawson as his biggest mover in his latest Big BoardInsider. Lawson is now up to No. 11. Kiper succinctly puts it: "You're just seeing a full arsenal here. Quickness, spin moves, rips, power."

Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander is also featured on the Big Board, though he has remained quiet about his future. The same goes for several other Clemson underclassmen with decisions to make: tight end Jordan Leggett (No. 5 at his position), safeties T.J. Green (No. 4) and Jayron Kearse (No. 6), and running back Wayne Gallman (not listed among Kiper's top 10 backs).

Though Lawson has decided it is in everyone's best interest to announce his plans, it would be surprising if any of the other Clemson underclassmen reveal their plans before the Oklahoma game. You can be sure coach Dabo Swinney wants them all focused on the semifinal, and not their pro prospects.