Boston Globe Feature On Lawrence: Carryover Effect Benefited UMass
Sept. 26, 2007
Matt Lawrence recalled vividly the first time he carried the football in college.
He was a freshman running back from Bloomfield, Conn., looking to fit in at the University of Connecticut in 2003. He was thrown into the breach in his first game, against third-ranked Virginia Tech, when starter Terry Caulley went down with a season-ending knee injury. So in front of a jam-packed crowd at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va., Lawrence, who had rushed for 1,950 yards on 130 carries as a junior at Bloomfield High, set out on his journey of self-discovery.
"I was 18, and I [weighed] about 190 - soaking wet," Lawrence said. "You step out there in front of 85,000 people, and they were No. 3 in the nation at the time, and they called my number and, shoot, it was happening too fast for me to even be nervous at the time.
"I get more nervous for some of my games now and I'm 22, but when I came out, I was 18 and I was like, 'I'm ready to go, I'm ready to go.' So, definitely, I was excited, but at the same time I didn't know what to expect.
"I'd been waiting on the chance to get out there and show my stuff. That was pretty much my whole mind-set."
And now? It's pretty much as it was then for Lawrence, who transferred to the University of Massachusetts in 2005 after languishing for two years in a UConn backfield crowded by Caulley and Cornell Brockington. "I wanted to be that featured back, you know?" Lawrence said. "I was splitting time with Brockington, and then Caulley was going to come back in 2004. We were going to be a three-man rotation, so I figured I was going have a better chance transferring to another D-1A school or coming down to 1-AA, or wherever I'd get the best opportunity to get on the field. UMass presented the best opportunity for me to get playing time."
After serving as the blocking back for Steve Baylark last season, Lawrence finally has earned his turn as UMass's featured back and will be eager "to show what I've got" when he leads the 4-0 Minutemen, ranked second in the nation in the NCAA Playoff Subdivision, into Saturday's showdown against 12th-ranked Boston College (4-0) at Alumni Stadium.
"I really haven't been the main focus or the main running back at UConn or pretty much at UMass until this year," said the fifth-year senior, who has 517 yards to rank second in the Colonial Athletic Association and eighth in the nation with 129.3 yards per game. "I waited my turn and I finally got it and it feels great to be able to prove to yourself and everybody else what you can do."
In last week's 38-7 romp over Maine, Lawrence established a career high with 176 yards rushing (which eclipsed by 2 his rushing total for last season) and scored three touchdowns. His first carry of the game was a 62-yard touchdown.
"He ended up being our fullback last year for most of the year," said UMass coach Don Brown. "You talk about a selfless act, when you're used to being a tailback for most of your career.
"But he's a big energy guy who always has a smile on his face. He just has that certain intangible, a certain charisma, that just uplifts the entire team. His attitude just translates so positively to the rest of the team."
Brown said Lawrence's combination of size (6 feet 1 inch, 210 pounds) and speed (4.4 seconds in the 40) helped him make a seamless transition from fullback to tailback.
"To be honest," the UMass coach said, "that fullback thing gave him a streak of toughness that's really served him well this season. When you're pounding it inside and taking on people as a blocker, there's no hiding when you're the fullback."
Lawrence said he probably never would have realized his opportunity to headline UMass's rushing attack were it not for a twist of fate - not to mention his right knee, in his first game with the Minutemen in 2005.
"It was the Richmond game, he goes for about 6 or 8 yards on his first carry and hurts his knee and is gone for the year," Brown said. "I twisted it up," Lawrence said. "I twisted it and had a bone bruise and a high ankle sprain."
The injury wound up being a blessing in disguise when Lawrence spent the remainder of the season rehabbing as a redshirt. Had he not, his eligibility would have expired last season along with that of Baylark, who ended his career second on the school's all-time rushing list.
"Thank God," Brown said. "You never look at an injury like it's a positive when it occurs, but, looking back, it separated them and allowed Matt to come back for another year after Steve left."
Said Lawrence, "It definitely was [a blessing]. I wouldn't have been able to talk to you here right now.
"It's just about competing and doing it every play and every snap and going hard."
It's the only speed Lawrence has known since his first collegiate snap.
"It was pretty mind-boggling, though, that first snap," said Lawrence, who drew his first start as a UConn freshman against North Carolina State and played as a sophomore against BC in a 27-7 loss in 2004.
"The speed of the game was fast, it was real fast," he said. "I wasn't a slow guy, either. But, shoot, the last game I had played was in high school, and then to come out and play the No. 3 team in the nation, who had juniors and seniors who had been playing college ball for four and five years, you know, the speed was just crazy.
"But it's nothing new to me now."