It finally happened.
The Jadeveon Clowney of old—the player who lives in the backfield, beats his opponent on the first step and makes helmets tremble in fear—showed up on Saturday afternoon in Knoxville, notching 2.5 tackles for loss in the Gamecocks' 23-21 loss to Tennessee.
This begs the question: What took so long?
Aside from a sack and forced fumble in the Gamecocks' win over Vanderbilt in September, Clowney has been largely anonymous in an up-and-down South Carolina defense.
In reality, he never really left.
Clowney claimed to have been battling a virus in the season opener against North Carolina as well as the win at UCF later that month. He certainly looked gassed in both matchups, notching only five tackles and zero tackles for loss in the two games combined.
Against Kentucky on Oct. 5, Clowney drew the ire of head coach Steve Spurrier and the nation when he informed the Head Ball Coach just before the game that a rib injury would keep him out of action. After throwing Clowney under the bus in the postgame press conference, Spurrier spent the next week backtracking and claiming that the whole thing was a breakdown in communication.
Spurrier offered an explanation in his Oct. 8 press conference:
The proper procedure and protocol when a player is hurt, he tells the (athletic) trainer or doctor, ‘Hey, I can’t go, this thing is hurting, there’s too much pain,’ and the trainer tells me, the head coach, he’s out, he’s not playing, and I say, ‘OK, he’s out, he’s not playing.' Simple as that. But we all didn’t do that and it caused some confusion, we didn’t know he wasn’t suiting up until a little later, so we didn’t handle it well.
The two things we're overly cavalier about are other people's health and other people's money. Only Clowney knows how hurt he really was. If he feels that stepping on the field when he is hurt will end up jeopardizing his future earnings, then he shouldn't risk it.
Clowney has become a victim of his own success.
His hit on Michigan's Vincent Smith in the 2013 Outback Bowl played on highlight shows virtually all offseason. It raised the bar to an unrealistic level in which people expect things like that to happen every time Carolina hits the field.
That's not football.
Instead of serving as fodder for highlights, opposing teams simply ran away from Clowney to limit his impact. That, coupled with his viruses, rib injury and a nagging foot issue that he's had since high school, have created the impression that he's out of shape, overhyped and uninterested.
That's incredibly unfair to Clowney.
Aside from the 24/7/365 Johnny Manziel surveillance, Clowney was the most discussed college football player of the offseason. When the season started, all cameras were on Clowney at all times. Instead of making the SportsCenter Top 10 every Saturday, fans got a glimpse of what a defensive end has to go through on a down-by-down basis—and it isn't pretty.
What do you think of Jadeveon Clowney's performance versus Tennessee?
The good news for the Rock Hill, S.C., native is that the controversy that has followed him around during the first two months of the season isn't likely to impact his future at the next level.
"Clowney's issues shouldn't affect his draft stock," B/R's NFL draft lead writer Matt Miller said. "NFL teams will dig deep and get real information on his injuries and early struggles. As long as he interviews well at the combine, no one will remember that he limped through a few games early in the season. He's a rare talent and NFL teams are still, rightly, in love with him."
Last Saturday's showing against Tennessee was an indication that Clowney never really left. The question now is, will teams run in his direction knowing that he's still capable of wreaking havoc in the backfield?
*All statistics are from CFBstats.com unless otherwise noted.