Entering the 2013 season, South Carolina defensive end Jadaveon Clowney was widely considered the favorite to be the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
However, things didn't quite go as planned for the 2012 Hendricks Award winner. Now Clowney readies for the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine under clouds of doubt about his work ethic, motor and dedication to the game.
NFL teams picking at the top of the first round would be wise to look past those doubts, because once the clouds part and the skies clear, the team that does so will have selected the type of difference-maker on defense who just doesn't come along every day.
In 2012, Clowney was an absolute monster.
Per CFB Stats
The 6'5", 274-pounder was the scourge of opposing offenses in the SEC, logging 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss en route to being named the Defensive Player of the Year in the Southeastern Conference.
Then there's the manner in which Clowney put the exclamation point on his breakout season.
That single hit, which won an ESPY award for Play of the Year, vaulted Clowney from star to superstar. That offseason was loaded with speculation as to how many signal-callers Clowney would make cry in 2013.
It turns out, not that many.
Per CFB Stats
Clowney's statistical production free-fell in 2013, at least partly due to a number of nagging injuries that reportedly dogged him throughout the season.
Some pundits, however, doubted that the injuries told the whole story. In fact, there were some that doubted the severity (or even the existence) of those injuries at all.
Back in November, NFL.com's Bucky Brooks went so far as to write that Clowney was "mailing it in" as a junior, giving less than 100 percent at times for fear of wrecking his draft stock with a major injury.
"After watching six game tapes of the Gamecocks' star," Brooks said, "I wonder if Clowney will ever live up to the hype and speculation that preceded his junior season."
Granted, the drop-off in production was alarming. There are backslides, and then there are backslides.
Critics point to plays like this one, in the first quarter of an October win over Missouri.
Clowney gets good penetration into the backfield, but with the stretch play designed to run away from him, Clowney "pulls up" rather than go all-out in pursuit.
Then there's this play against North Carolina, where Clowney looks either gassed or disinterested in getting after the ball-carrier.
Whether it was conditioning or commitment, Clowney's critics point to plays like that as the primary reason for Clowney's slump, waving the red flag that Clowney's motor doesn't match his immense physical talent.
According to Anwar Richardson of Yahoo! Sports, Clowney isn't having that nonsense:
I kind of laughed at it. People are going to say what they want to say. I bet half of the people that are talking can’t play football. They just see what they see, or don’t know nothing about the game. I just get a laugh out of it.
Clowney continued, stating that his coaches with the Gamecocks had no issues with his play in 2013:
If you watch our tapes, everybody can see I’m playing hard. Guys that don’t know anything … People expect me to get five sacks, 10 tackles for loss every game, but that wasn’t going to happen the way teams were playing me. I’m taking 80 snaps a game, all our snaps per game, I’m playing them all. Coaches were like, ‘Keep playing the way you play. We love the way you play.'
Clowney's on to something here.
First off, there isn't a defensive end on earth who goes all-out on every defensive snap of a game. Not even J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans, who has a motor that chews up mere mortals and spits out J.J. Watt bobbleheads.
It's just not possible for a 275- to 300-pound lineman to do that 60-70 times a game, no matter how good his conditioning is. It's why teams rotate up front and why hurry-up offenses are so effective.
Also, as the run play above demonstrates, most teams made a concerted effort to run away from Clowney wherever possible in 2013.
It's not hard to see why. Run at him and this happens.
It was a much different situation on passing downs too. In 2011, Clowney had All-American Melvin Ingram playing opposite him. Two years ago, it was Devin Taylor, who is now with the Detroit Lions.
There wasn't a player of that caliber opposite Clowney in 2013, and the result was more attention from opposing offenses.
A lot more.
This play from the Missouri game is only one of the innumerable times Clowney faced double- and triple-teams in 2013.
Yes, that time it was "just" a running back held back to help the tackle with Clowney. Other times it was a tight end. Or a fullback. Or a guard.
The point is, there was just about always help.
As Matt Waldman of Football Outsiders reported, that help was bound to have an impact on Clowney's stats:
These changes in personnel also change how teams compete against Clowney. It means the young defensive lineman is experiencing another new phase of the process that is learning how to become a consistent game-changer. He’s a unique player and teams are often doing unique things against him.
In 2012, Watt racked up 20.5 sacks and was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. In 2013, he was double-teamed (or more) almost constantly, and he saw his sacks drop by nearly 40 percent.
Guess he "mailed it in" too.
The good news for Clowney is that he'll have a chance to put most of this behind him soon enough.
The NFL Scouting Combine is about more than just drills. There are also any number of interview sessions, and you can bet that Clowney's 2013 dip in stats will be one of the first topics discussed.
At least, until Clowney hits the field and scouts lose the ability to speak.
Clowney told Richardson "I hope to run a 4.4 (second) [40-yard dash] right now." That may be wishful thinking, but it doesn't change the fact that the combine is tailor-made as a showcase for supremely athletic players.
Clowney's ability in that area is unparalleled in recent draft classes.
As Rob Rang of CBS Sports wrote, Clowney has an "exceedingly rare combination of size, explosiveness, strength, speed and technique." Mike Mayock of the NFL Network went one step farther, proclaiming that Clowney has more upside than the last defender taken No. 1 overall:
I know that he's got the physical makeup to be the best player the draft. If you want to compare him to Mario Williams, I think he's a better football player with more upside than when Mario came out of college. ... From a physical skill-set (standpoint), this kid is as freaky as they come. He plays a position of critical importance in today's NFL, which is an ability to get the quarterback, and he can play multiple places on the defense. All those things check off.
Of course, Mayock also added that "My biggest concern is just, what's his mental makeup? How important is it to him, when he gets a paycheck, to become the best player in football, or is he just going to be happy to be a millionaire?"
Is it possible that Clowney dialed it back a notch or two in 2013 for fear of getting hurt? Yes.
After watching what happened to teammate Marcus Lattimore (who was considered the top running back in his class before he shredded his knee), can you blame him? This is the biggest opportunity of his life. Of his family's lives. It comes exactly once.
Is it possible that Clowney's conditioning needs work? Yes.
Is Jadeveon Clowney worthy of being the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft?
That would place him in a group that includes the vast majority of the players entering the NFL since the history of ever.
After an offseason of watching Clowney nearly decapitate Vincent Smith, far too many people came to expect that sort of impact on every snap from Clowney. He then sat through months of talking heads wondering aloud why Clowney wasn't blowing someone up on every play.
If Clowney is as motivated now as he claims to be, and uses last year's "disappointment" (the Gamecocks had the most successful season in team history last year, finishing fourth in the nation) as fuel for the fire, then those Doubting Thomases are going to get pretty quiet pretty quickly.
They'll go back and look at game film. Then they'll look at Clowney's numbers from Indy. Then they'll re-check those numbers, because holy crud he can't really be that fast at 275 pounds.
Except he is.
Jadeveon Clowney is head and shoulders above the rest. By far the rarest prospect of 2014. #NLFDraft— Ryan Riddle (@Ryan_Riddle) February 1, 2014
No, Jadeveon Clowney isn't perfect. That's not exactly news.
What he is is the most physically gifted player to come along at his position in quite some time, a player for whom the sky truly is the limit.
And at the end of the day, that's all that really matters.