"Definitely. I'm trying to be around the ball. They say as a defensive player the closer you are to the ball the more valuable you are to the team. So I'm trying to be as close to it as possible!"
Game replays consistently remind just how close Lawrence usually gets to the ball and its carrier or catcher. Yet this season he hasn't necessarily been the Bulldog finishing such folk off; those same replays also show other linebackers or safeties arriving first. Meaning, if the senior linebacker is to defend his 2011 title Lawrence will need to pick up his stopping-pace.
Is he worried? Does he think current pacesetter Benardrick McKinney (50 tackles), or safety Nickoe Whitley (37) and linebacker Deontae Skinner (32) should at least share some stats with their senior leader? After all, the reason Lawrence is almost always on the spot watching his teammates make the tackle is he originally targeted them. Lawrence is gaining quite the reputation for reading the offense and calling checks for his squad.
So why not those first responders give the defense's traffic director a slice of the statistics? "Oh, no!" Lawrence laughed. "They do that, they're big-time SEC players too. I can't take credit for their tackles!" So Lawrence is content with his total to-date, which are good enough to rank him 14th among SEC tacklers in league-only play (McKinney comes in sixth this week by the way).
What matters more to all of them is how the overall defense has performed in their three conference wins so far. The Bulldogs dominated Auburn (216) yards and Kentucky (228). But their true success was last week limiting Tennessee's potent attack to 361 yards, with eight of the 11 series lasting five or fewer plays. In the process State took a professional-prospect quarterback and made Tyler Bray look, well, ordinary.
"That was our gameplan," Lawrence said. "He's a good quarterback, not to take anything away from him. But we're a great defense and that's what great defenses do. They get after good players and force them to do things they're not comfortable doing." The result was 13-of-24 passing for Bray and just 148 yards, or about half of his usual output this season. McKinney and Lawrence had 14 and 10 tackles respectively.
Not that the linebackers and linemen take all the credit. They had outstanding support behind allowing the front six or seven depending on package to pressure Bray and limit the underneath opportunities. Not to mention keep Tennessee attempts to win on the ground in the second half. Lawrence says everyone has full confidence in the cornerback and safeties.
"Absolutely. Us being able to handle the run and let our secondary handle the passing game, we've got a lot of trust in our DBs." Which was rewarded by a group that limited the top two Vol targets to a pair of catches each…no small feat given the sheer ability shown by, say, Cordarrelle Patterson. Lawrence has watched and chased and covered a lot of great athletes in his college career, but #84 was something special.
"Ooooh, man, definitely at the top. He's a real dude, a NFL guy. He's definitely at the top of my list." By the same token, Bulldog linebackers have been well-trained for their own coverage challenges. Keeping up with LaDarius Perkins and Marcus Green and Brandon Hill will prepare a ‘backer for anyone…and now here comes another impressive option. Lawrence still shakes his head over what TE Malcolm Johnson did in his spectacular return to action.
"He was making plays in practice and it carried over into the game," reported Lawrence. Yeah, but did Johnson practice anything like his amazing touchdown catch to seal the victory?
"That was a huge highlight catch there," Lawrence said. "I mean that was a snag. We're all on the sidelines looking back like, wow!" It raises the interesting question too, of what anyone could have done to prevent such a play. "I'd have been heated if it had happened to me," admitted Lawrence. "But I'd have made sure it didn't happen! I'd have had to go for the ball, I'd have found a way to get the ball down!"
The football should be down closer to the ground this week against another Tennessee-based team. Middle Tennessee is built around the rushing game that nets close to 200 yards each week and almost five yards on every carry. Their top performances have been 302 rushing yards against Florida Atlantic and 264 at Georgia Tech in what has been their signature success this season.
The Raiders have suffered a major setback, though. A knee injury late in last week's 34-30 win over Florida International has sidelined Benny Cunningham for the rest of the year, taking a 6.2-per-carry producer with 11 of the team's 15 rushing touchdowns. This bad break for the opponent won't change how Mississippi State schemes, Lawrence said.
"That's been our gameplan all year, we're going to stop the run. As a linebacker corps was pride ourselves on stuffing the run and forcing them to throw the ball. But we're going to stop the run. Middle Tennessee, I think they're percentage is 64% run so that's the majority of their offense."
DEEPER AND STRONGER: McKinney's work so far is backing-up all the spring training talk about how impressive the redshirt freshman was then. He did not start the first three games at middle linebacker; instead coordinator Chris Wilson went with old Dog Lawrence in a ‘mike' type of role while big Skinner and fast Matthew Wells flanked him.
By game-four McKinney, the young beast of the bunch, was starting in a grouping that still varies week to week depending on whether Wilson wants a three- or a four-man front. It is an approach the coach would have taken more often last season had the linebacker numbers been there. Now, they are.
"Benardrick taking some pressure off Cam, that's major," Wilson said. "Now it gives you more depth. Now yo've got Cam, Skinner, Matt, (Ferlando) Bohanna. What it is created is depth. And to win the game, the stretch we've got going into this last half, we need that. And you can't have a lot of drop-off."
For the Tennessee game though, it wasn't as much a tweaking of the line or the ‘backers Mississippi State presented the Volunteers. It was a starting nickel-set with Jamerson Love stepping in as a third cornerback. Considering SS Corey Broomfield is already a starter, it made for a secondary with a clear bias to coverage.
And it worked.
"Jamerson was as instrumental in our winning as anybody," Wilson said. "He was out there on probably their second or third best receiver who in reality had kind of been (Bray's) go-to guy. And at the end of the day he caught two passes, I was really impressed with Jamerson and I'm looking forward to seeing what he does these next few games."