The college football season began Thursday with South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, arguably college football’s best player, taking center stage. The Gamecocks’ season-opening game versus the North Carolina Tar Heels was one of the opening week’s most-anticipated games, mostly due to the test that it could provide Clowney.
Clowney certainly was put to the test. When he lined up at his natural spot of right end, he was matched up against a potential first-round pick in North Carolina left tackle James Hurst. Additionally, his ability to generate pressure and make plays was challenged by North Carolina’s quick-passing offense and a strategic game plan to move the ball away from Clowney whenever possible.
Many onlookers were disappointed with Clowney’s performance. He didn’t have any sacks or high-impact plays and had a couple periods of extended rest that raised doubts about his conditioning. A close review of his all-around game, however, showed that he actually played a very solid game, even if he did not have any one or two particular plays that stood out on the highlight reels.
For as big as Clowney’s game is, his legend has grown even larger. As a result, he is going to be scrutinized as closely as any player in college football on every play.
His perceived superstardom can lead to unrealistic expectations. Clowney isn’t going to duplicate “The Hit” every game, while even the NFL’s best defensive ends don’t beat their opponent on every snap. There were a few legitimate negatives in Clowney’s performance , but even if it did not show up consistently in the stat sheet, he made many plays happen in the Gamecocks’ 27-10 victory.
Evaluating Clowney’s Impact
Every opponent Clowney faces this year will prepare for each game with the same question in mind: What can we do to minimize Clowney’s impact on the game?
The Tar Heels certainly made that part of their preparation, but that didn’t stop Clowney from making plenty of impact.
While Clowney did not record a sack or tackle for loss in this game, he was credited with three quarterback hurries and brought pressure on numerous other occasions as well.
Clowney actually had a sack opportunity on his final pass-rush of the game. He ran through a cut block (not the only time he did so to demonstrate his balance) and got a great angle to the quarterback, but allowed the quarterback to pass through his arms. His pressure still forced an incomplete pass through the end zone.
One of the areas where Clowney excelled was with his inside rush moves, specifically on his swim move. Against both Hurst and North Carolina’s two right tackles (Jon Heck and Kiaro Holts), Clowney was able to consistently work his way inside of the tackle by using his quick, violent swim move and exploding off the snap.
The most impressive of many examples of Clowney using this technique came in the middle of the second quarter, on a play that ended up as a 2-yard run for UNC quarterback Bryn Renner.
The play was initially designed to be a pass, but Clowney was able to generate heavy pressure and force Renner to run out of the pocket. As the screenshots below demonstrate, he first beat Hurst with an inside swim move, then put an outside swim move on a chip-blocking running back to break free around the edge and pursue Renner with speed.
With his impressive size (6’6”, 274 pounds) and inside rush ability, the Gamecocks can line Clowney up all across the line of scrimmage without limiting his effectiveness. As a result, the Gamecocks lined up him everywhere from 1-technique nose tackle between the center and guard, to 7-technique end outside of each offensive tackle.
The Gamecocks were smart to do this for multiple reasons. First of all, it allowed Clowney to take advantage of some more favorable matchups with less-experienced players at guard and right tackle, rather than consistently going up against the Tar Heels’ best offensive lineman in Hurst. Additionally, it made it more difficult for the Tar Heels to consistently move the play from Clowney, by keeping the team guessing as to where he would line up.
Though he consistently drew double-team blocks when lined up inside, he still managed to penetrate the middle of the offensive line on a number of occasions. The following example, in which he went between the right guard and right tackle for a quarterback pressure, was one of his most impressive.
While the Tar Heels double-teamed Clowney and threw quick passes away from him in an effort to neutralize his pass-rushing efforts, their game planning against him as a rushing offense was even more evident. The Tar Heels consistently ran the ball away from Clowney.
This limited Clowney’s ability to make plays in run defense, but it didn’t stop him. On a number of occasions, Clowney showed his tremendous speed and ability to turn the corner by running around one edge of the line and quickly covering ground to the other, getting in on or close behind a run stop.
His most impressive play in run defense, however, came nearly 10 full yards downfield. Clowney quickly exploded into the backfield after being left unblocked off the right edge of the line, but the Tar Heels attempted to take him out of the play by pitching the ball out past him to the right sideline. Clowney showed his tremendous recovery speed, however, by chasing the running back down from behind for a tackle just behind the first-down markers.
Clowney still made an impact with his presence even on plays where he came nowhere near the run. By consistently drawing double-teams while UNC was deliberately running away from him, he was able to set up one-on-one opportunities for his teammates to make run stops. Through those opportunities, the Gamecocks held the Tar Heels to just 2.8 yards per carry.
Where Clowney Struggled
Overall, Clowney had a game that should impress scouts and hold his standing firm as one of the elite prospects in the 2014 NFL draft. He generated pressure as a pass-rusher and made a consistent presence as a run defender. While big plays made him a superstar, it is consistent disruption at the line of scrimmage that will make him a top draft pick.
One legitimate area of concern for Clowney, for which he took criticism Thursday, is his conditioning and consistency of effort. There were numerous occasions in which Clowney had to come out of the game for a significant sequence of plays, or looked winded or gave a subpar effort on the field.
In truth, Clowney makes plays at a far higher rate than most defensive linemen, so any concerns about his conditioning or effort are not strong enough to drop him from top prospect status. That said, an elite prospect like Clowney should have every aspect of his game scrutinized, and if Clowney is going to become an elite, J.J. Watt-level player at the next level, his stamina and ability to make plays when tired must both improve.
He left the game with apparent cramps at one point in the fourth quarter, which also raises concerns about his conditioning. In order to make it through a longer season at the next level, his conditioning must improve.
That said, it is typical for players to have cramping issues in their season openers (in part because there are no preseason games in college football), especially in the 90-plus-degree heat he played in last night. Clowney was also dealing with a stomach virus, according to Eric Adelson of Yahoo! Sports, which would certainly take a toll on his conditioning.
He was not particularly effective as a bull-rusher in this game, and his pad level was too high at times. Still, Clowney graded out as playing one of the most consistent games I’ve seen him play last night, and he clearly could have played better. If Thursday night’s game was a sign of better things to come, Clowney should be in line for another terrific season.
How The Competition Stacked Up
Part of the reason why Clowney did not make any big plays was Hurst’s solid play. While Hurst was beaten on a few occasions on swim moves like in the example above, he held Clowney in check for the most part when matched up against him.
Hurst played with physicality last night, getting his hands into Clowney’s pads and asserting his strength. He did a very good job shielding Clowney around the edge and away from the quarterback in pass protection, like he did in the example below.
Hurst held up well against bull-rushing attempts by Clowney and even managed to push him back a few times with strong shoves. He made a number of mistakes in pass protection; on one rush, Clowney exposed poor posture by Hurst, as Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller noted on Twitter.
Still, by holding up for the most part against the nation’s top defensive player, he continued to display first-round potential. As the game progressed, the Gamecocks lined up Clowney progressively less at right end — this was by design. With Hurst being able to use his size, physicality and hand technique to make the game a battle for Clowney, the Gamecocks could make Clowney more effective by moving him to play weaker opponents.
All screenshots were taken from ESPN3's archived video of the game. All illustrations were created by the author.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.