On Saturday in Tennessee, Clowney is sure to remind those believers why they feel that way while sending a clear message to those who doubt his ability to make an impact at the next level.
The 6'6", 275-pound Clowney will be matched up against Volunteers offensive tackle Antonio Richardson, who ranks 16th overall on NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper's big board and performed well against Clowney in 2012. At 6'6", 327 pounds, Richardson represents the type of athletic and strong tackles that Clowney will one day face in the NFL.
A junior out of Nashville, Richardson is a legitimate first-round prospect and could wind up going somewhere in the top 15 next May. Therefore, Clowney's stock can only improve with a solid outing in Knoxville.
He doesn't have to beat Richardson like a drum from the opening snap to the final play in order to raise his draft stock. Rather, he just has to hold his own throughout and make one or two plays that stand out. That's what happened a year ago when Richardson was able to keep Clowney under wraps for a majority of the game before the then-sophomore beat him off the edge late in the game to record his only sack, which resulted in a fumble and turned out to be one of the most pivotal plays of the game.
Even if Clowney goes completely unnoticed over the course of 60 minutes at Tennessee or the rest of the 2013 season, NFL personnel people will still be left drooling at the combine.
Earlier this month, one NFL executive went so far as to say that it doesn't matter how Clowney approaches his junior year with the Gamecocks, so long as he's in shape and saying the right things during the interview process, per USA Today's Tom Pelissero: "Nah, no one will care. If he's healthy, works out well and most importantly interviews well, it won't hurt him."
So while Saturday's matchup presents another opportunity for the star pass-rusher to justify the preseason hype, it won't determine where he's drafted.
No one game this fall is going to make or break Clowney's NFL draft stock. What he does at the combine and in interviews leading up to draft day will play a huge role in where he winds up coming off the board. But on Saturday, Clowney will be up against his greatest challenge yet in 2013 and is sure to show glimpses of why he's the popular pick to go No. 1 overall next spring.
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