Welp. That sure didn't take long. Within seconds of the final whistle of South Carolina's 34-24 victory over Wisconsin, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was asked the question that has been on everyone's mind for months: Will he enter his name into the 2014 NFL draft?
The answer: an emphatic "Yes sir."
"It's been great. We've put everything into this," Clowney said, per CBS Sports' Will Brinson. "I'll miss everything about Carolina. I love it here."
This, of course, is about as surprising as a rash of DUI arrests on New Year's Eve.
Everyone knew Clowney was declaring—we just didn't know how soon or how he would do it. Barring catastrophic injury (and maybe even then), Clowney declaring for May's draft was about as close to a sure thing as you can get in college football.
What comes next, however, is the far more interesting question.
The reason everyone so expected Clowney to declare is because, at this time a year ago, we were still reacting to The Hit. You know, the time Clowney burst through the Michigan offensive line, collapsed a rushing play almost at the handoff, barreled through Wolverines running back Vincent Smith like a blow-up tackling dummy, and then caused and picked up a fumble to give the ball back to the Gamecocks.
It came in a season where Clowney set single-season sacks records at South Carolina, but that hit was his lasting legacy.
SportsCenter's "Top 10 Plays" had to retire it because it won the "best of the best" vote so many times. Multiple highlights of said hit have more than a million views on YouTube. Clowney's hit was his version of Bo Jackson breaking a bat with his knee, his LeBron James scoring 25 straight points against the Detroit Pistons.
Like James and Jackson, Clowney was viewed as the prototype. A human specimen specifically designed to do right and kill everything on the football field. He would have been the No. 1 overall pick last year without question if he'd been eligible.
But, despite avoiding any major injuries and looking like the exact same player, there are few more polarizing prospects in this year's class.
Well, let's get this out of the way first: Clowney is still going to be a top-five selection. Teams still marvel at his combination of size, athleticism and strength. When engaged, there are few players in college football history who have been better at affecting a game from the three-point stance. He's a marvel to watch, and he has the type of infectious personality that could make him a franchise cornerstone.
We won't need the Caveman to tell us he's All-Pro linebacker Brian Orakpo.
Yet the man who once seemed predestined to be the No. 1 pick in 2014 will have to play the catch-up game to regain his spot. That distinction will likely belong to Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, whose grip on the top spot has become something of a stranglehold. The Houston Texans need a franchise quarterback after their dumpster-fire duo of Matt Schaub and Case Keenum—to go from 12-4 division champions to 2-14 top-pick holders requires a special level of putridity.
It's fair here to say that being taken first overall doesn't necessarily require being the best player. Quarterback is the most important position in football, and if you have the chance to grab someone at that position who can be a franchise guy, you take it; solid defensive ends are readily available in free agency. I also still have Clowney as the No. 1 prospect on my draft board.
But the reality is that Clowney wouldn't have to scramble had his 2013 season not been a complete and utter disappointment.
He finished with three sacks, 10 fewer than in 2012 for those who don't feel like doing math on a holiday.
And it's not just that the numbers weren't there. The scary perception going on about Clowney now can be boiled down to an October quote from his head coach (via Josh Kendall of The State):
Effort. It's been the word hanging over Clowney's head since we all decided as a nation that he was out of shape for South Carolina's season-opening win over North Carolina. The reactionary sports kingdom, watching Clowney on his first national showcase since The Hit, deemed his performance unworthy. He was fat and happy with praise. He was saving his body for the NFL. He looked like someone who didn't remotely want to be wearing a Gamecocks jersey.
This would all be laughably written off as narrative if some of it didn't show up on film. Clowney did take plays off. There were times when he'd just disappears for quarters on end, as if we were all supposed to forget this athletic freak was on the field.
"What you're seeing right now with Jadeveon, you're starting to have questions about really what is he motivated by?" ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick said recently, per the Orlando Sentinel's Edgar Thompson.
There are many excuses that could be written for Clowney's down season. He was facing double- and at times triple-teams while playing in the toughest conference in the nation. He battled through a series of injuries all season, a knee on top of ribs on top of a shoulder.
Those were all contributing factors, and smart teams will focus on those before casting any aspersions on a 20-year-old kid they just spent the past 12 months fawning over.
That said, "effort" is one of those unteachable traits that scare teams to death. You can't coast on talent the same way on Sundays—everyone is super awesome at playing football. When deciding between a Bridgewater or a Clowney, sometimes it's the tiniest swing factors that take a team in one direction.
Clowney's stock is slightly down because of that perception, and merely because of situation. The Texans have J.J. Watt. The St. Louis Rams have Robert Quinn and Chris Long. Defensive end is not a priority for either team. It seems that the Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 3 are the first possibility, though it would shock no one if St. Louis decided to deal that selection.
And I suspect the team that drafts Clowney won't have many complaints. As noted by ESPN Stats & Info, Clowney showed just how dominant he can still be without sacking a quarterback against Wisconsin:
Anything can happen between now and May. Clowney's measurables at the combine will be something to watch, as a freakish performance could cause the Texans to consider a Long-Clowney pairing or a disappointing one could cause more handwringing.
The reality, though, is that Clowney is still the player he's always been. He "disappointed" only because of the absolutely unrealistic expectations his play caused.
He's not the Human Hit Parade like we all wanted, but don't be surprised when we're all marveling at this kid on Sundays—no matter where he winds up.
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