Kenneth Crawford recalls watching Lawrance Toafili play his first snaps of JV football at Pinellas Park High. It was clear the freshman would soon be on varsity.
“First game he touched the ball six times — he scored six times,” said Crawford, Pinellas Park’s varsity head coach. “He’s faster than people think. You double that with his vision. But probably the most impressive thing is the way he puts his foot in the ground and accelerates. When he downshifts and puts that foot in the ground, he is gone. He does such a good job of changing directions full speed.”
Toafili did it throughout high school, rushing for 4,809 yards and 55 touchdowns. He averaged – wait for it – 9.7 yards per carry, an eye-popping number that shows his big-play ability. He was often Pinellas County’s top rusher, statistically speaking.
But then Crawford admits Toafili could have accumulated even more yards and touchdowns. Toafili saw that Pinellas Park often had an advantage over an opponent and the score would get out of hand. He was often a willing blocker for teammates, yielding carries that could have been his to make sure they instead were spread out among the other running backs.
“He was all about the team and his teammates and getting it right,” Crawford said.
Toafili is getting it right at Florida State, too. He has 20 carries for 163 yards, including a 99-yard performance in the Seminoles’ victory over Jacksonville State on Saturday. Toafili has that make-you-miss ability, turning a small opening into a big gain and short receptions into yards after the catch.
After losing Cam Akers to the NFL after his junior season, one question going into the fall was which of the talented Seminoles running backs would be able to help spark the ground attack. FSU coaches have found a number of options, from Jashaun Corbin to La’Damian Webb to Toafili. And what often stands out about Toafili is his penchant to make would-be tacklers look bad.
“Very few times did the first guy tackle him,” offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham said. “That’s what playmakers do is they don’t get tackled by the first guy. That’s something that has shown up over and over again on tape for him.”
Good running backs do just this, creating yards after contact. But the reason for Toafili’s success isn’t just his natural running ability, speed or vision. It’s in his work ethic and time he has spent learning FSU’s offense.
“That’s probably one of the things I’ve been most pleased to see, is the investment he makes when it comes to learning a variety of things,” FSU coach Mike Norvell said. “You’ve already seen him line up in multiple places. He’s lined up in the backfield, he’s lined up in the slot (at receiver). He’s been able to utilize the skill set he has because of the investment he makes in. Developing his knowledge.”
Toafili always pushed himself — it is the way he was raised. He learned at an early age the value of hard work, observing his mom and dad. (His mom often worked 12-hour shifts as a nurse.) His dad instilled a mindset that he would aim to be the best at whatever he was doing. Lawrance saw his dad, once a standout player at Pinellas Park, lifting weights. It motivated the son to do the same, to try to match his dad.
“He’s a pretty big dude,” Toafili said. “I never really could bench the same amount as him.” He pauses, though, and thinks about it. “I’m probably catching up now.”
When it came time to pick his college, Toafili had a choice from a large number of schools beyond FSU, including the likes of SEC powers like Florida, Alabama and Auburn. Coach Mike Norvell made Toafili a priority when he arrived in December, quickly connecting with the running back and building a relationship.
That was important. But Toafili had long since committed to the program back when Willie Taggart was the head coach and he had no intent to waver. Toafili told Crawford: “I committed to a rebuild, not a coach. I want to be a Seminole.”
In December, Toafili signed with FSU. He is studying sports medicine but also sees an interest in business. Toafili feels fortunate to be an FSU student-athlete and appreciates the boosters who fund their scholarships.
“Not too many people get this opportunity and I just thank God every day for blessing me with my talents and appreciate everybody who takes care of all of us,” Toafili said. “It’s just a blessing.”
Toafili’s experience at FSU so far has been a whirlwind. He arrived early in the summer but quickly made an impression on FSU’s coaches during the extended preseason camp. Norvell remarked in August that Toafili was gaining confidence and “had explosive runs just about every day.”
Even Toafili’s one reception in the opener against Georgia Tech was a 12-yard gain. As it turned out, it was just a quick glimpse of what he would offer against Miami and Jacksonville State.
“I’m just trying to go as hard as I can and make the best out of my opportunities that I get,” Toafili said. “I feel like I did alright. There are some things I can clean up, things I can do better. Just have to keep working.”
That work ethic will only help Toafili in the months and years to come. Norvell has noticed it, too. There is a gradual learning process and understanding for a freshman of a new offense as well as adjusting to the speed of the college game. But there is also a realization that Toafili not only has the talent, but also the desire to learn and he’s gaining a strong grasp of the offense.
“In the meeting room, you can see the confidence starting to build,” Norvell said. “Obviously his performance on Saturday was one that I was really pleased with. Not just with the ball in his hands, but also some moments he had to step up in pass protection and throw his body around as a true freshman. You can tell the willingness he has.”
Toafili said he knew how he took to pass protection was critical to playing time. He studied technique and leverage on the field and made a commitment in the offseason to strength and conditioning. All of it to help him prepare for the fall.
Norvell has often remarked there are no shortcuts. His motto? Work. Toafili is a perfect example of that, having the drive to work hard day after day.
“He’s an incredible young man,” Norvell said. “Very humble. Hard working. He has a passion to be great. I know we are early in his college career, but he’s taking strides and showing that commitment to the work ethic that is required. I’m excited about what his future is going to hold.”