If South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney plans on becoming the first defense-only player in history to win the Heisman Trophy, he's going to have to fare a whole lot better than he did in Thursday's season opener against North Carolina.
The Gamecocks defeated their rivals 27-10, though it's arguable that they could have extended the lead further. The Thursday night opener saw sophomore Mike Davis bust out as an obvious heir apparent to Marcus Lattimore, rushing for 115 yards on 12 carries. Hell, the game was even delayed for nearly two hours after lightning was sighted in the Columbia area.
But for an overwhelming majority of the contest, the focus was directly upon Clowney.
The South Carolina star posted only three tackles (all in the first half) and failed to record a sack. Arguably the biggest play he was involved with was when Tar Heel tackle Kiaro Holts went at his knees from behind in the second half.
He was noticeably absent and away from the ball, with fans hearing his name called more in anecdotes from the announcing team than for anything he did on the field.
Saliently, Clowney was winded at multiple points in the contest, particularly in the third quarter. He struggled to keep up with North Carolina's fast-paced offensive attack, leaving Steve Spurrier to pull him on more than one occasion for a fresher body.
As these things tend to do nowadays, his conditioning instantly became a hot-button topic on social media.
The surname "Clowney" was trending on Twitter throughout the night, with folks either expressing a level of concern or simply doing their best Louis C.K. impersonation. Former All-Pro linebacker LaVar Arrington was just one of many who fit in the former group, calling out the unanimous All-American for what he deemed a lack of hustle:
Following the game, the conditioning of the preseason Heisman candidate became the media's overarching focus. Josh Kendall of The State was on hand for the postgame press conference, where Spurrier made it clear he and Clowney weren't exactly on the best terms:
The ol' ball coach hasn't been shy about criticizing his star before. He's come out and censured all the Clowney talk surrounding the sixth-ranked Gamecocks, noting that he couldn't deal with the autograph hounds anymore. And then there was the whole practice misunderstanding.
With his coach breathing down his neck and probably a few teammates as well, Clowney came to his postgame presser ready and prepared for any and all questions—particularly those related to his conditioning.
The first words out of Clowney's mouth indicated he knew what was coming:
After the initial welcoming, however, Clowney's tone quickly turned to dismissive. He made sure to point out that he wasn't the only player gasping for air on the field. And to be fair, the humid South Carolina temperature was enough to make multiple reporters blanch Thursday night. Interestingly, Clowney also claims to have been suffering from a stomach virus over the past 24 hours:
The Gamecocks did not report an illness with Clowney, though they are not required to in the same way NFL teams are. There will be some who use the illness to dismiss the performance as a minor blip on the radar, while others will say he was making it up to avoid criticism.
Neither of those two factions matter. What does matter, however, is whether Clowney deserves criticism for his subpar play against North Carolina. And whether his conditioning is something we need to look into.
The answer, as it tends to be in these cases, is somewhere in the middle.
It's irrefutable that Clowney failed to get himself in football shape for Week 1. Even if he was suffering from dehydration due to illness, his motor was still lacking and he ostensibly should have been refreshed post-halftime. He was frankly listless at certain points in the game; you don't have casual football fans calling out conditioning if there's not some smoking gun there.
That said, it's not like the kid came out looking like he spent the last seven months living at Cook Out. He was the same human freakazoid who captured the nation's attention throughout last season, built like some sort of mythical being from years past.
Bluntly, this is the latest exercise in overreaction theatre. Plenty of factors went into Clowney's nondescript performance, and not all of them were in his control.
North Carolina's offensive game plan was filled with small nuances that made it clear the offensive staff prepared to mitigate Clowney's effect. Larry Fedora called for quarterback Bryn Renner to throw a succession of short passes, a majority of which went for minimal gains while holding off the pass rush.
Anytime a quarterback needs 43 passes to throw for 194 yards, at least some credit is due to the opposing pass rush.
I've yet to go back and look at the game film, but I noted while watching live that a majority of Romar Morris' carries also went away from Clowney. That will take some deeper analysis to get the numbers, but the Clowney Effect was obvious to anyone who watches those things closely.
As Bleacher Report's Matt Miller pointed out, games like this are why you can't necessarily look at a box score and get the entire scope of what happened:
The Hit Heard 'Round the World also makes Clowney a victim of his own success. He's now expected to make bone-crushing hits and become Reggie White reincarnated every time out on the field.
But the defensive line is one of the heaviest spots of variance. There were four games last season when he failed to record a sack, and one against East Carolina when he had just two tackles.
These things happen. It's football. Peyton Manning doesn't throw for 400 yards and four touchdowns every Sunday.
Then again, he also never looks like he needs an oxygen mask attached to his helmet.
This is one of those situations where both sides have an argument. Clowney wasn't prepared for his role Thursday night. The media and fans also have to be cognizant that this is an incredibly small sample size, and there's a good probability that Clowney was dealing with an illness.
Take whichever side you please. Just do yourself a favor and don't go all Tebowian with your hot takes on the matter. Because something tells me come next week we'll be having an entirely different conversation about how Jadeveon Clowney fits into the college football stratosphere.
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