Draft Analyst Q&A: Justin Lawler

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Chris Tripodi

Draft Analyst Writer

Justin Lawler set career highs across the board for SMU this season, making 74 tackles -- 15.5 for loss -- and flirting with double-digit sacks before finishing with 9.5. He was one of six AAC players to earn a repeat All-AAC First Team selection this season and was one of the best pure pass rushers in the country throughout the season.

Draft Analyst had the opportunity to chat with the Mustangs' rising pass rusher to talk about being overlooked his entire career, his experience at the East-West Shrine Game and how he's preparing for a potential position change at the NFL level.

DA: Entering the year, scouts stamped you as a marginal free-agent prospect. Were you aware of this?

Lawler: I kind of got a feel for where I was, but it wasn’t a big deal. I still had a season to go, and obviously your senior season is very important -- so that’s mainly what I focused on and put everything else on the back end.

DA: You were also a two-star recruit out of high school. How much extra motivation do you get from how you’re viewed by scouts and scouting services?

Lawler: It doesn’t really bother me. You’ve got to control what you can control, and that was a long time ago. Obviously I tell people, and people like to hear, “Oh this guy was a nobody coming into college and now he has the potential to play in the NFL,” so I guess that makes for a good story. It’s just who I’ve always been; I’ve always just shown up and went to work. I can’t control any of that, so I didn’t really worry too much about it.

DA: Your numbers improved each season you were at SMU, and your pressure stats this year were some of the best in the country. What was the biggest key to your steady ascension?

Lawler: I was a low recruit, so I think I was just very raw as far as technique and stuff like that, so I think it was just showing up to work every day and getting better. I felt like I had a better season every year, and I think that was attributed to my offseason and to my workouts that I put myself through. I just kept getting better every year through the process I had for myself.

DA: Was there anything specific you focused on each offseason or was it something new every year?

Lawler: Obviously you’ve got film from the previous year that you look at. You sit down with your defensive line coach and kind of figure out the specific things you need to work on. I’m a fundamentals guy; you can never be too good at the basics, and that’s something I kept in mind every offseason. If I can perfect those basics, the advanced stuff will come easier. Just focusing on one thing at a time and not trying to do too much but focusing on those basics and getting better.

DA: What’s the one trait you possess that you feel gives you an advantage against any opponent you’re up against?

Lawler: My effort. I try to play as the hardest person on the field, because that’s just something I can control at all times. That’s kind of what I try to focus on as far as running to the ball and just relentless effort.

DA: What’s the biggest thing about your game now that you want to improve heading into the NFL?

Lawler: First of all, just trying to figure out the NFL game. It’s a little different than college, and you see a little different schematics than college. And after talking to coach after my senior season, just gaining more flexibility and building more strength. I don’t always bend well running the corner, so things like that, increasing my hand usage and just little things will make me better and allow me to make more plays.

DA: What were your goals once you found out you were heading to the Shrine Game?

Lawler: I just wanted to go out and perform the best that I could. I didn’t really have any numbers in mind, but the one thing that I’ve always been high on is that when I left I didn’t want to have any regrets, and I think I accomplished that. I wanted to go to practice and just play as hard as I can, let my training and habits take over, not be nervous and just enjoy it. Football is fun. I wanted to have a week where I wasn’t uptight and worried about every step that I took but to where I had fun playing the game that I love.

DA: What was the All-Star experience like?

Lawler: It was fun, I’ve never really been in an atmosphere like that where you have all these guys together trying to do the same thing. Talking to teams, it was a surreal moment -- like we’re getting closer and closer each day and this is becoming more reality the closer we get.

DA: Scouts talk consistently about your intensity and speed off the edge. What’s an underrated trait you have that nobody talks about?

Lawler: I think I play the run well. I’ve always tried to do that. My D-line coach [Brett Diersen] always said I have the mind of a coach, and as a defense you want to stop the run, so I’ve always tried to play the run very well and just kind of work the pass off that. That kind of mentality is something I try to have in mind at all times, especially when I work out -- make sure I can play the run, and you kind of earn the right to rush the passer on third-and-long.

DA: You talk about having the mind of a coach. When do you think you started to develop that mind for the game?

Lawler: It was probably my sophomore year of college. We went through a coaching change; coach [Chad] Morris came in and we got a whole new defense. When they brought out our first depth chart I was third-string, and nobody wants to be a third-string guy, so I adopted the mentality that whatever I needed to do to move up, I was going to do it. I adopted the mentality that I’m going to learn the playbook first and know what to do on every play and in every situation. I enjoyed knowing the entire defense. I still know our entire defense -- I’m a little fuzzy on the safeties -- but I took that mentality and liked it. I learned the defense, started going to coaches’ meetings and watching practice with coaches and it just went from there.

DA: How much did knowing all levels of the defense help your game and help you improve?

Lawler: Really two things: it allows you to play so much faster because you don’t have to think. It’s already in your head way before the ball is even snapped -- if my tackle does this, this is exactly where I’m going, and this is my fit. The second thing would probably be sideline adjustments. The coaches can only see so much from the box and so much from the sideline, so having someone on the field who knows where the mike is supposed to fit, where the will is supposed to fit, where the star is supposed to fit, where the front four is supposed to fit, I think it kind of gave us an advantage on the sideline of knowing where people were going, what the offense was doing and so on.

DA: Where are you training?

Lawler: I’m in Fort Worth at APEC, and I’ll stay there up until my pro day.

DA: What are you focusing on during training, and have you trained or practiced standing over tackle in case you are asked to do that during pro-day workouts?

Lawler: I stood up a little bit at the East-West Shrine Game; teams told me they wanted to see me do that, and I think I’m completely capable of doing that when teams ask. As far as training, just developing speed. We’re doing a lot of running mechanics; as defensive linemen we’ve never really had to open up, really once or twice a game chasing the ball, but that’s about it. It’s mainly four, five, six-yard bursts. Just the sprint mechanics part of the 40 and the agility. You can always improve as an athlete.

DA: Have you done any linebacker drills, dropping into space to simulate coverage techniques?

Lawler: As far as drills right now, no, but a little bit in pass rush. At SMU my junior year we had a bunch of injuries, so I moved to what we call our LEO, which was our boundary end, and I got a lot of opportunities to stand up and drop into space. Mainly just dropping into the flats, so I’ve done that, I did that for seven games, and I’m very comfortable and very capable of doing that type of work.

DA: When is your pro day? What type of marks are you hoping for?

Lawler: March 29. I want to hit anything over 20 on bench press; 22-24 would really be ideal, and I’m perfectly capable of doing that. In the 40, 4.7 or really low 4.8s. Vertical -- 32-34 would be really ideal. Broad jump -- 9’5’’-9’6’’ to 9’10’’. I feel like those are good goals for me and solid things to hit, and if I can go past them I’ll definitely do that.

DA: Where will you be on draft day, and what’s your level of excitement?

Lawler: I guess I won’t really feel it until it comes, but I’ll just be hanging out with my family -- a normal weekend for me. I’m not going to change too much. I’ve got a little girl and a wife, so I’m just going to spend as much time as I can with them and just enjoy spending some special moments with special people.