Former Smiths Station standout Nigel Lawrence knows what is expected of him in this, his senior season at South Alabama.
The 5-foot-11, 205-pound safety is prepared to deliver too, just as he has always approached the game. But admittedly there is a new aspect to his game with which he is having a bit of trouble adjusting — leadership.
It’s not that he doesn’t want the role, he does. Likewise, it’s not that he can’t handle the role, he can. It’s just something new to a player who has always favored letting his actions, both on the field and off, define him to his teammates. He has always let his hard hits on the field and his honesty and how he carries himself off the field serve as the gauge by which his leadership is judged.
This season, the Jaguars’ new coaching staff, led by head coach Steve Campbell, has asked Lawrence to add a more verbal aspect to his leadership duties. Lawrence said he is giving it his best shot, and it’s something he is becoming more comfortable doing.
But all things considered, he still prefers that his actions speak for him.
“Because I’m a senior I’m trying to embrace the leadership role more,’’ Lawrence said after a recent Jags’ practice session. “It’s harder for me just because it’s new, so I’m just trying to get used to it. The toughest part is being vocal, trying to help the young guys — really everyone — just pick up what they’re doing. But then again, it’s not hard because I want to win so bad I’m willing to do anything.’’
He’s done a good bit in his previous three seasons. Lawrence played in all 12 of South Alabama’s games last season, starting 11 of those games at the rover position. He was named an honorable mention All-Sun Belt Conference selection after making 83 total tackles, which ranked second on the team. He also ranked among the top 12 in the Sun Belt in tackles per game and forced fumbles. Against arch rival Troy, in the game billed as the “Battle for the Belt,’’ Lawrence made nine tackles and broke up a pass.
He hopes to improve on those stats this season, a season in which the Sun Belt will use divisional play for the first time ever and host a championship game at the end of the regular season. South Alabama will play in the West Division and was picked in the preseason coaches’ poll to finish third in the five-team division behind Arkansas State and Louisiana-Monroe and ahead of Louisiana-Lafayette and Texas State. Troy plays in the East Division, opening the possibility of a South Alabama-Troy title game that would only enhance the rivalry.
“(This season) means a lot,’’ Lawrence said. “It’s my last one, so I’m enjoying it. I’m enjoying every day. You can’t get these days back so I’m trying to take it all in.’’
He said he is encouraged by the new coaching staff and about the Jags’ chances to make something happen this season on the heels of a disappointing 4-8 record a year ago.
And he’s ready to do his part to make that happen.
“I want to do whatever it takes for this team to win games and go to the biggest bowl game this school has ever been to, anything for the university,’’ Lawrence said.
“The defense is looking really good. We were a good defense last year, we had good players and stuff (like that). But this year we’re more seasoned and more polished players. We look really, really good.’’
Family and friends back in Smiths Station are keeping a close eye on Lawrence and he’s aiming to make them proud. As a Panther, he was a three-star prospect by 24/7 Sports his senior season and garnered a two-star ranking from Rivals.com and Scout.com. He earned three letters in both football and baseball.
Lawrence collected a whopping 217 tackles and four interceptions as a player at Smiths Station. During his senior season he made 91 stops, picked off two passes, produced a fumble recovery and defended five passes, earning him second-team all-state honors.
During the offseason he can often be found back in Smiths Station and at the high school, working out on his own as well as with some of the Smiths Station players.
“I go back home when I can and I work out with the high school team and try to talk to them and encourage them and help as much as I can,’’ he said.
Maybe that’s where his new leadership role can look to for its foundation.
Tommy Hicks, a Phenix City native, has covered sports in Alabama for more than 40 years. Contact him at