The words come out of JaJuan Lawson’s mouth without hesitation, as if it’s the only proper, logical response. “Who would have ever thought?” the former Casa Grande quarterback said. Yes, indeed, who would have ever thought the next paragraph would have ever been written?
In his first two years of college football, Lawson threw a total of five passes. On Jan. 19, Lawson will play in the eighth annual NFLPA Collegiate Bowl at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl.
As trajectories go, this one has the profile of a shuttle launch. Two years ago, he was a backup quarterback at the University of New Mexico. That didn’t put Lawson on some distant planet in the football universe, although he could see the vastness of obscurity from there.
Two years later, Lawson will practice with and compete against some of the best college players in the nation. NFL Hall of Famers like Jackie Slater and Darrell Green along with former All-Pros like Bryan Cox, Andre Johnson and Ed Reed will be there to school the kids on what it’s like to play on Sunday, everything from nutrition to late-night ventures into nightclubs.
In other words, this ain’t no pick-up game. NFL coaches and scouts will be there. This is an invitation-only event. This is for draft-eligible players. This isn’t for someone who threw five passes in two years. This is for someone who had a scouting service gush all over him.
“Smart versatile quarterback,” began the scouting report for NFL Draft Diamonds, “that could go from virtually unknown to get drafted in Day 3. Reminds me a bit of Dak Prescott (Dallas quarterback). Similar traits. I see heart and toughness and a quick release. A late-round steal. He has the IT factor.”
The scout also could have said, “I saw him for the first three games of the 2018 season and that was enough for me.” That had to be what the NFLPA saw to offer him the invitation. In his first three games of the 2018 season for the University of Rhode Island, Lawson passed for 839 yards and nine touchdowns. Lawson was hurt in the next game against Harvard and missed four games with a torn meniscus in his right leg.
The invitation letter from the NFLPA came after the third game of the season, the Sept. 15 one against Connecticut when he threw for 351 yards and ran for two touchdowns while throwing four touchdowns. Until the injury, Lawson was a lock for Colonial Athletic Association Conference Player of the Year.
Not that Lawson is unfamiliar with setbacks. “It’s been a long, windy road,” said Lawson. That journey also could be known as Mister Toad’s Wild Ride.
When Lawson left Casa Grande, San Jose State and Fresno State offered scholarships. He went to New Mexico, found himself in an option offense — run first, pass second — and determined he was a square peg in a round hole. In the summer of 2016, Lawson was back in Petaluma and doing some odd jobs with pal and former Casa teammate Miles Gardea. Gardea, a linebacker, was going to URI on scholarship and said Lawson should check with Rhode Island, once he heard the quarterback was seeking to transfer.
Kids who transfer cross their fingers. Lawson has a friend, Matt Quarells, a teammate at New Mexico. Quarells transferred to Iowa and transferred again to Southern Illinois, where his career ended quietly.