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Shaq Lawson on second season with Bills: 'It's time to bring what I had back when I was in college'

Shaq Lawson's first season in the NFL never had much of a chance to be anything but a disappointment.

When the most memorable event of your rookie minicamp is undergoing shoulder surgery, you're pretty much starting from the bottom of a hole. And when the climb is made even more difficult by a defense that doesn't fit your skills and that you find too complicated to understand, you are virtually destined to be underwhelming.

Wearing the label of a first-round draft pick, as Lawson did with the Buffalo Bills last year, only makes the whole experience a source of motivation to make up for all that went wrong.

Now, with his body healed and the Bills employing a defense similar to the one of which he was a part during his standout career at Clemson, the defensive end is expecting big things from himself this season.

"Of course, yeah," he told reporters last week. "I’m going to live up to that. That’s what they want me to do. I’m going to give them a reason why they drafted me here as a first-round pick.

"It’s time to bring what I had back when I was in college."

At Clemson, Lawson was dominant. In 41 games, he was credited with 20 sacks, 29 quarterback pressures, two forced fumbles, 167 tackles, and 46.5 tackles for loss. He had 12.5 sacks in 2015, his final season with the Tigers.

Lawson had the attention of the entire NFL, including Bills coach Sean McDermott, who at the time was the defensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers. McDermott got an up-close view when he worked Lawson out before the 2016 NFL Draft.

McDermott liked what he saw. Lawson also had a fan in Bills General Manager Brandon Beane, who at the time was the Panthers' assistant GM.

"I was familiar with his skill set and who he was as a person," the coach said. "That said, as we all know, when you transition to the NFL, it’s a different game."

It's also more challenging when you enter the league as damaged goods. Lawson suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder as a freshman in 2013, but played with it through his entire college career.

The injury didn't discourage the Bills from making Lawson the 19th overall pick of the draft, because they thought he could avoid surgery until after the season. However, while making a swim move on a tackling dummy during rookie minicamp, Lawson aggravated the shoulder and had the operation shortly thereafter.

He missed the rest of offseason workouts, all of training camp and the preseason, and was on the physically unable to perform list for the first six games of the regular season.

Lawson played in the final 10 games, including one start, as an outside linebacker in Rex Ryan's 3-4 base scheme. He did have three sacks in his first four NFL games, and although the first two came in losing causes, he could at least wear them as badges of honor. The first was against Tom Brady, the second was against Russell Wilson.

Still, having played in a 4-3 base at Clemson, the defense and the many pre-snap adjustments and substituting it required were more than Lawson could handle, especially as a rookie who entered the NFL as a junior. Being asked to drop into pass coverage also was something that didn't suit him well.

Under McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, the Bills are using a 4-3 similar to the one in which Lawson played in college. As a bonus, Lawson is back to playing end.

Through non-contact offseason workouts, he not only looked more comfortable working from a three-point stance, but also seemed more explosive off the ball while working with defensive line coach Mike Waufle and assistant line coach Bill Teerlinck.

"I like where he is, I like his skill set," McDermott said. "… I think Coach  Waufle and Teerlinck have done a phenomenal job. And I’m pleased with that unit overall up front in terms of what they have been able to accomplish and in terms of our philosophy, in terms of attacking the offense and winning up front."

Attacking is all Lawson wants to do. It's all that he has to do in the Bills' new defense.

No more wondering if he's lined up in the right spot. No more worrying about whether he has to cover a running back going out for a pass. No more looking to the sideline or watching or listening to fellow defenders to make sure he's doing the right thing.

No more head-spinning.

"When I got up there, I was thinking a lot," Lawson said. "I had to make sure I didn’t mess up an assignment, because it was very difficult. The playbook we had last year was difficult to learn.

"The (new) defense is simple. … It’s the same thing I ran at Clemson. I picked it up a lot faster, and I’m very comfortable right now and I’m ready to play ball."

At least, this year he has more of a chance for success than disappointment.

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