Throughout the months of June and July, I will be looking ahead to the 2014 draft here at Bleacher Report and breaking down the draft class's top 10 defensive line prospects. The series begins with Clowney, who is widely considered to be the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2014 draft class.
Even though Clowney still has his entire junior season of college football to play before he almost certainly declares for the 2014 draft, he has already gained a cult following.
Clowney has been a big-play machine for the Gamecocks since the beginning of his freshman year. His hype as a future NFL superstar truly began, however, with one explosive hit, forced fumble and recovered fumble in the 2013 Outback Bowl versus Michigan.
Many fans know Clowney best for that singular play, but his overall body of work puts substance behind the hype. He is a rare physical specimen who has become consistently better at using his physical tools throughout his first two collegiate seasons.
Clowney has superstar potential and will almost certainly be among the 2014 NFL draft's top picks barring an injury or significant drop-off. There are still numerous aspects of his game, however, which he must improve to realize his potential and become an NFL great.
While Clowney's game is continuing to develop, it is simply a matter of continuing to make better use of his physical gifts. Clowney possesses a combination of size, speed, agility and strength that makes him a physical freak in every sense of the phrase.
Listed at 6'6" and 274 pounds by South Carolina's official website, Clowney has ideal size for a 4-3 defensive end. He also has enough size to play 3-4 defensive end or situationally line up at defensive tackle in pass-rushing packages.
Clowney has terrific length. He backs up his long frame with great bulk, and with that bulk comes strength. He has the power to drive back opposing blockers as a bull-rusher, and the strength to hold up gaps as a run-stopper.
The clip above demonstrates what Clowney can do with his power. By driving Kentucky's left tackle back and then into the ground, Clowney is able to run around him and chase down the Wildcats quarterback for a sack.
Clowney has a definite size presence at defensive end, but his speed, quickness and agility are what make him a truly special athlete.
His 40-yard dash time of 4.5 seconds, as reported by ESPN's Tom Rinaldi (via Rotoworld's Evan Silva), is likely exaggerated. Nonetheless, it doesn't take watching much of Clowney to confirm that he has explosive speed for his size.
When Clowney successfully anticipates a snap like he did in the above play versus Georgia, he can explode off the line like a sprinter coming out of his blocks. He accelerates up to speed very quickly, and he consistently displays the speed to chase down skill-position players.
His athleticism isn't limited to straight-line speed. He has rare agility for a defensive end, which he frequently uses to side-step blockers or hop over cut blocks. As demonstrated in the clip below, he can use that agility to single-handedly make a big play.
He is also an impressive vertical athlete who is good at leaping up while providing pressure to swat or disrupt passes.
Clowney and his agent likely won't feel the need for him to participate in the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, but it will certainly be a sight to watch if he does. His blossoming ability to translate his outstanding physical attributes into big plays on the football field is what makes him a truly special prospect.
Rushing the Passer
Clowney tied for third in the Football Bowl Subdivision last season with 13 sacks, and that number could continue to grow not only in his junior season but also at the next level.
Clowney constantly brings pressure against collegiate opponents, and he should be able to do the same at the next level. He is a multi-dimensional pass-rusher who can beat his opponent in many ways.
For Clowney, beating an opponent can sometimes be as simple as exploding off the line, dipping his shoulder and getting by a blocker's outside with his speed. The play below is an example of him doing that to get a quick quarterback sack.
With outstanding quickness and acceleration, a split second is all Clowney needs to beat his opponent with speed. He is also faster than most quarterbacks, making it very difficult for passers to escape his rush and extend a play.
As demonstrated earlier, Clowney can also beat an opponent with a straight bull rush. He uses his length and power to establish leverage against a blocker, and he can effectively drive his opponent back toward a quarterback to bring pressure.
Clowney is also very good at using his hands to make pass-rushing moves. He has a quick and forceful swim move, which he uses effectively going to both the outside shoulder and the inside shoulder. When he puts his swim move together with an explosive start off the line, it is difficult for any offensive lineman to block him.
Opponents often double-team Clowney in pass protection in an effort to neutralize his pressure, but doing so is not always successful. With his quickness, length, power and hand activity, Clowney is often successful at working his way through a double team to bring pressure, or in some cases even a sack.
Defending the Run
Clowney's development as a run defender still has a ways to go, but he can still be an instant-impact player against the run at the next level.
The famous hit versus Michigan is one of many examples of Clowney blowing up a run play in the backfield. He had the benefit of being unblocked at the line on that play, but often explodes through or around blockers before burying a runner in the backfield.
Clowney's quickness and acceleration off the edge allow him to go around the outside of an offensive tackle, turn the corner with his speed and converge on a running back going up the middle before he even crosses the line of scrimmage.
With his explosiveness off the line and ability to drive through the inside of a blocker, Clowney also has the ability to go directly inside and break through the line to get into the backfield.
When Clowney gets into the middle of a backfield, he uses his size and speed to generate momentum and deliver explosive hits like the one he delivered against Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the 2013 Outback Bowl.
Running at Clowney is just as challenging as running away from him. With his combination of size and strength, he holds his gaps well and creates a presence that shuts down most running plays that come in his direction.
Clowney's Imperfections and How He Overcomes Them
Virtually all draft prospects have flaws, and Clowney is no exception. Fortunately for Clowney, he has a full college football season remaining to continue improving. He is also already able to overcome most of his imperfections with his athleticism and skill set.
Clowney had 23.5 tackles for loss last season, but he could have had even more if he had been a more sure tackler. When coming straight at a ball-carrier, he often simply hits the runner rather than wrapping the runner up. He misses tackles as a result.
Clowney also does not have great instincts. He often misreads option and play-action plays, and ends up going after the player who does not have the ball. As the option is quickly becoming a more significant part of many NFL offense, this could cause Clowney problems at the next level.
His spectacular athleticism, however, often allows Clowney to make up for his instinctual mistakes and occasionally his missed tackles as well. He has terrific recovery speed and frequently tracks down plays upfield and/or out in space.
Clowney makes no shortage of impact plays, but he is not as consistently disruptive as he should be given his skill set. While he has the ability to explode through double- and even triple-team blocks, he gets locked up by isolated pass protectors more often than he should. His motor seems to run hot and cold.
Clowney is already ready to make an immediate impact in the NFL, especially as a pass-rusher. But if he can develop better instincts, become a more sure tackler and be more consistently disruptive, he should become one of the NFL's best defensive players.
Projecting Where Clowney Fits
Clowney is very likely to be the first defensive player drafted in 2014, so the scheme he ends up in will be mostly determined by which teams hold the draft's top selections. He is a franchise player whose drafting team will likely adjust their defense around him, but he has the talent to excel in any defensive scheme.
Clowney, who lines up most often and effectively as a 6-technique at South Carolina, is most naturally suited to play right defensive end in a 4-3 defensive front. He has ideal measurables for the position and can immediately be a three-down starter.
His combination of size and athleticism also makes him an intriguing prospect for a 3-4 defense.
Clowney has experience lining up as an inside rusher and at the 5-technique end spot, and could develop into a J.J. Watt-like player as a 3-4 defensive end. Like Watt, he has the potential to redefine that position and be a dominant pass-rusher, while his power and gap-controlling ability could also make him a terrific run-stopper in that position.
A move to outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense is also a possibility. He could excel as a wide stand-up rusher off the edge, while he has the speed and lateral athleticism to be a very good run defender in space. He could struggle in pass coverage as a linebacker, but he has the athleticism to make quick progress in that capacity as well.
Clowney's universal fit to an NFL defense is that he can be an immediate-impact player whom opposing offenses will have to account for from the beginning of his rookie season. Even at the next level, he will be athletically superior to the vast majority of his opponents, and he expands upon that athleticism with technique.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.