This time last year, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney had just polished off a stellar regular season and was preparing for the Outback Bowl against Michigan.
It was in that game that Clowney changed.
His helmet-jarring hit on Wolverines running back Vincent Smith elevated him from college football star to college football superhero.
"Last year's bowl game - someone told me there wasn't a single person in China who had heard of Jadeveon Clowney," head coach Steve Spurrier said in post-practice comments released by South Carolina. "Now they all know who he is after that hit. That hit was shown for eight months."
Eight months seemed more like eight years, though.
Clowney—who finished sixth in voting for the 2012 Heisman Trophy—entered the 2013 season with the weight of the college football world on his shoulders. Widely regarded as the first true defensive player to have a legitimate shot at college football's most prestigious individual award in August, he was now also expected to re-create "the hit" on virtually every snap.
That wasn't realistic, and the world found out why in a hurry.
Clowney was slowed by a virus in the opener on the first Thursday night of the season against North Carolina, only managed three tackles with no sacks or tackles for loss, and generally looked out of shape against the Tar Heels.
It was viewed as the exception to the rule at the time, but we found out as the season went on that Clowney's struggles were the norm.
He had sacks in the next two games—a loss to Georgia and a win over Vanderbilt—but hardly made the impact many expected. Teams game-planned around Clowney, which relegated him to more of a spectator.
"You don't see many players that have been double teamed, and triple teamed, and run away from and all that as much as he has this year," defensive line coach Deke Adams said in quotes released by South Carolina. "I think he's done a great job with it. I think he's handled himself well."
|Jadeveon Clowney Through the Years|
He again dealt with a virus in a win at Central Florida in which he only had two tackles, and then came the Kentucky game on October 5—when perception of Clowney changed drastically.
He reportedly told his coaches that he couldn't play shortly before kickoff against the Wildcats, despite being cleared by the medical staff. That wouldn't have been such a big deal had Spurrier not thrown him under the bus in the postgame press conference.
The cat was out of the bag at that point, but cooler heads prevailed in the subsequent days, as Spurrier and Clowney both chalked up the incident as a misunderstanding.
"It was a miscommunication between me and the coaches and the trainer," Clowney said, postgame. "I should have handled it different."
But should he have really handled it differently?
Clowney was in a unique spot this season.
He has been considered a sure-fire top-five pick since his freshman year, and he had to balance personal and team priorities on Saturdays in a season in which, had it not been for the NFL's rule mandating players be three years out of high school to enter the draft, he should have been playing on Sundays.
B/R's own Michael Felder ranked Clowney as the fourth-best 4-3 defensive end in the CFB 250 series, which ranks the top 250 players in college football in 2013. Not bad, but certainly not where we expected him to be in August. Clowney's "struggles" this season were a product of circumstances more than anything else.
Clowney entered the season with incredibly unrealistic expectations and a spotlight on him unlike any college defensive end in recent memory. Instead of seeing "the hit" on repeat, we got to see the down-by-down punishment defensive ends take on a weekly basis. That punishment resulted in the rib injury that kept him out of the Kentucky game and aggravated a foot injury that he has dealt with since high school.
It was a down year by Clowney standards, but the standards he set for himself and the ones others set for him were unrealistic.
He was banged up, overanalyzed by fans, intensely criticized by pundits and stuck out like a sore thumb on game tape to offensive coordinators.
It was a perfect storm for Clowney, and he weathered it the best he could.
Now it's on to bowl prep for him and the Gamecocks, which will serve as the final chapter of the Clowney era in Columbia.
"We're trying to finish the season off strong and win this game against Wisconsin," he said in post-practice comments on Tuesday. "My three years went by so fast. I'm just looking to moving forward in life. I've gotten a lot (out of my time at South Carolina), but there's still more I can learn here."
He learned during his junior season that the spotlight can be blinding, which is valuable to him in his future endeavors and to other college football superheroes who will follow in his footsteps.