Urban Meyer on drafting Trevor Lawrence: That’s the direction we’re going

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One by one, the 2021 draft dominoes fall. One month from tonight, Roger Goodell will take the stage in downtown Cleveland—set on the shore of Lake Erie between the football stadium and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—to announce the first-round picks in the 86th NFL Draft. In the wake of 26 minutes that shook the NFL on Friday, it looks like the first three (maybe four) names out of Goodell’s mouth will be quarterbacks.

There’s been little mystery about the first domino to fall on April 29, but let’s make it officially official.

“Is there any real mystery that you’re picking Trevor Lawrence?” I asked Jacksonville coach Urban Meyer the other day.

“Uh,” Meyer said, not flinching, “I’d have to say that’s the direction we’re going. I’ll leave that up to the owner when we make that decision official. But I’m certainly not stepping out of line that that’s certainly the direction we’re headed.”

I loved it. Why hide what you’re doing, just for fake NFL drama? Meyer’s been laser-focused on Lawrence since, as a FOX college football analyst, meeting him during college football playoff prep. Meyer’s extremely close to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, and has a pipeline to all things Lawrence, on and off the field. Fair to say he couldn’t be more comfortable with his first pick as an NFL head coach.

“Trevor checks all the boxes, you know?” Meyer told me. “The number one common quality of every great player, not just quarterback, is competitive maniac. He’s 34-2. Won a national title as a true freshman. Is a winner. I’ve seen him up close and in person compete. And then character. I see him and I witness with my players, when the guys get drafted high, a lot of people get . . . They have influences in their live. Like, whether it be social media, whether it be other things that really don’t pertain to winning. What I’m really pleased with and I don’t want to say surprised, but him, his agent, his family, they’re focused on one thing. He wants to become the best version of himself for the National Football League, which is, well, it is somewhat refreshing.”

*****

Today is Meyer’s 75th day on the job. He hasn’t met his full team yet. That bugs him, as it would any coach trying to get to know his players. He’s adjusting to life in pro football, and he knew this was coming, but the rhythms of an NFL coach’s job are far different than what he got used to in 17 years as a college coach at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State.

“Not much has surprised me other than the fact you just don’t get to be around your players as much,” Meyer told me from his office at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville. You’ll be able to hear and see my conversation with Meyer, and on NBC Sports’ YouTube page, when The Peter King Podcast posts by 6 p.m. ET today.

“In college, you got 75 guys rolling through your facility every day. One of my favorite things to do is go down to the weight room and hang out with the players while they’re lifting weights. There’s about 20 guys rolling around here [now in the Jags’ weight room]. Nothing’s mandatory. I think a lot of people coach for a lot of reasons. Mine is relationship with players and it’s hard . . . I talk to them on the phone quite a bit. I have not had one team meeting. Think about that. I’ve been the head coach since January and we have not had a team meeting because we’re not allowed. So that’s the biggest adjustment.”

My biggest question about Meyer is staying power. He is 56 years old. He resigned from Florida in 2009 at 45 for health reasons (chest pains, severe headaches due to a brain cyst), then said it was a leave of absence, then returned to the job the following spring. He announced his retirement after the 2010 season, then returned to coach at Ohio State 11 months later. He retired at the end of the 2018 season, again citing health reasons. Then he started to get the itch again in January 2020.

“I gave a lot of thought to [his health issues],” Meyer said. “Obviously, this was not a knee-jerk reaction. This is something that I’ve been studying for at least 12 months, starting back in January. Studying the roster, studying the lifestyle, studying everything about it. I’ve done my due diligence on it. But I’m committed to Jacksonville. I told that to our owner.

“Florida was stress-related. At Ohio State, I went seven years and I kind of knew down the road, I was getting near the end. Plus I found the right guy. Ohio State’s very personal to me. When I found the right coach in Ryan Day, and he almost left the year before to become a head coach, I went to our president and I went to our AD. I said I found the right guy. All the assistant coaches, all the strength staff, the training staff, the infrastructure stays in place and the organization just continues to thrive. That’s everybody’s dream. That’s what happened at Ohio State. At Ohio State, I didn’t have stress-related issues. I had some health-related issues—the Arachnoid [brain] cyst issue I had dealt with. I had surgery in ’14 and some stuff. I worked through that pretty well.”

I told him the last superstar college coach to make the jump to the NFL, Nick Saban, lasted two seasons 15 years ago. Two years into a five-year contract, with a 15-17 record, Saban asked Miami owner Wayne Huizenga to be let out of his contract so he could coach Alabama. Huizenga gave his blessing. As for being a short-termer like Saban, I asked Meyer: “You think there’s zero chance that happens? Little chance?”

“Zero chance at that happening,” Meyer said. “What Coach Saban went through, I don’t know. That’s Coach Saban’s business. I’m not quite sure. At some point, I might talk to him about it . . . he’s a friend of mine and I got great respect for him. It is different. It’s completely different. My mind is set. There’s gonna be some losses . . . That’s gonna be miserable. I hate losing. We all do. But the reality is that you’re gonna lose. Hopefully you win more than you lose. But that’s something that’s gonna be new to me. I have to get my mind right and I’m working on that.”

The course of NFL history could have changed—college football history too—if the Dolphins signed Drew Brees in 2006 instead of Daunte Culpepper. But Miami docs wouldn’t pass Brees on his physical because of shoulder surgery. And 10 months later, Saban was in Tuscaloosa. Most Sabanphiles think he’d have stuck around if he thought he had a real chance to win. But without a good quarterback, he bailed after his 6-10 season in 2006.

Saban tried to rebuild on the fly with a bad QB situation. The difference with Meyer, of course, is Jacksonville will have one of the brightest quarterback prospects to enter the NFL in some time, and Meyer can refine and sculpt a great talent in his image. The Jags also had more cap room than any team in 2021 free agency, and they still have a league-high $40-million available to spend. Finally, Jacksonville has a league-best five picks in the top 65 of the draft. Saban never had any of that. Meyer understands that what happens this year will determine in large part whether he can turn around this franchise.

“The Jacksonville Jaguars had a nice run as an expansion team with Tom Coughlin, had some very great core players,” said Meyer. “And then they kind of fell off a little bit. And then in 2017, almost made it to the Super Bowl. This Duval County [home county of the Jags] is starving to win. It’s almost like it lined up pretty—I don’t wanna say perfectly, because you have a lot of draft picks, 11 of them. You have salary cap [room], which we addressed a bunch of needs. We didn’t maybe sign the big, big-name guy because we really couldn’t. But it just aligned. And then you have the number one pick in the draft. This will set the stage for the Jaguars’ future for several years, if we do it right. If we don’t . . . [pause] it’s not easy.”

Meyer has had two good NFL mentors. He’s become close to Jimmy Johnson (they were FOX-mates) and Johnson counseled him on NFL potholes. Meyer also had several visits to Patriots camp in recent years and got to know Bill Belichick. “I got something every time I visited the Patriots,” he said.

I asked him for an example.

“Well, Tom Brady,” Meyer said. “I got to witness Tom Brady first-hand and it was the last day of a mini camp in June. I had been to a few of those and usually people had one foot out the door. They just got done with a very long, seven/eight weeks in the offseason. You’re talking about the greatest quarterback of all time. Mike Vrabel was there. Tedy Bruschi was there. I was blown away.

“The last day of mini-camp, they’re in shorts, helmets, and they’re doing a two-minute drill. And Tom Brady is treating it like it’s the Super Bowl. He goes down and he scores with two seconds left to win that scrimmage. Ran around the field like a child—that’s how competitive he is. I went back immediately to my quarterbacks and shared with them that I just watched the greatest of all time, and the way you’re supposed to practice, the way you’re supposed to provide energy to the rest of your team and the way you lead your team. I was blown away at Tom Brady and the way he performed at practice. And the way I went into the offensive meetings with Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady and Tom Brady’s actually the one who had the clicker in his hand. It was amazing. He was in there running the film. He had the offensive line sitting there, running backs, receivers, and Tom Brady was running the clicker and watching practice film, dissecting the plays with the offense. Think about that for a minute. You can say he throws a great pass. But people that really understand the game—there’s much more than that that makes him the best of all time.”

Culture will be big for Meyer. It’s a major mantra. When I asked him about the NFL ethos that drags the great teams toward the middle and drags the bad teams to the middle, he said that was something he studied “quite a bit.” He believes maintaining greatness when the world works against it is part of an ethos built in an organization before the first games is ever played—how to avoid .500 when the league plots for teams to be exactly that.

“I asked that same question to [Belichick] many, many times,” Meyer said. “It came back to me and that’s why I’m such a believer in culture. Culture survives. Culture survives injuries to players, transitions to players, transition of staff. Coach Belichick’s the best I’ve ever witnessed at it. There’s a Patriot way and a Patriot culture there. It’s not for everybody. Matter of fact, I’ve heard them criticized, too. That’s fine. That’s his way of doing it. My Utah days and Florida days, I like to think that’s what made us sustainable all the years.

“You can say, well, Florida, Ohio State, you have better players the most. But it’s also, you have to win every game you play. You’re in March Madness at Ohio State. You can’t lose one game or it’s a failure. We got to that point at Florida. I remember we went 14-1 one year, or 13-1. I heard people say ‘Hey, we’ll get ‘em next year. Tough year this year, coach.’ I say, My gosh. Those other teams had scholarships, too. I think—no, I don’t think, I know this. The thing that made the Patriots so strong is the culture that Bill Belichick and Mr. Kraft built in that organization.”

“Quarterback helped,” I said.

“Part of that culture,” Meyer said.

A very big part.

Two more things.

One: “What’d you learn from your experience with Chris Doyle?” I asked. Doyle, the former Iowa conditioning coach, left there under a cloud, accused of using racist language with players, got hired by Meyer, and “offered his resignation” (the press release said) the next day when the heat hit Meyer.

“I did our due diligence on that,” Meyer said. “But one thing that I made a self-promise—if it’s a distraction . . . it was the right thing for Chris to move on because it became a distraction to our team. Anything that’s a distraction to our team, I want to make sure we avoid.”

Anything that’s a distraction like that, Meyer should see coming, and should have people with the backbone to tell him. That’s why I thought the hire of Amy Palcic as Jags VP of Communications was smart. She’s got a spine and won’t be afraid to tell Meyer some hard truths. Never having worked in the NFL before, Meyer will need that. The Doyle situation won’t be the last ugly one—but some can be avoided before they ever happen. And the Doyle hire should never have happened.

Two: Standing uncomfortably close to Trevor Lawrence during his Pro Day. I don’t know—that was curious to me, and got some attention a couple of weeks ago at Lawrence’s Clemson workout.

“I was as close as I could be,” Meyer said. “I’m that way at practice, though. I like to be near a quarterback. I like to hear him talk. I like to hear a ball come out of his hand. I like to hear—”

“Do you really hear [a difference]?” I wondered. “You can really tell something by hearing the ball come out of a quarterback’s hand?”

“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “Absolutely. The violence, the snap that the ball comes out with, the grunt or the effort. Some guys throw a ball effortless and some people have to really rear back and throw it. Absolutely. Someday, Peter, I’ll have you stand there and let you listen. I’ll have an average guy throw one and then I’ll have him throw it. You tell me if you can hear the difference.”

This summer, I hope. August. In Urban Meyer’s first camp as an NFL head coach.

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here.