South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has been a highly touted prospect ever since he left high school. Then, it was ESPN Recruiting, calling the top overall prospect a "special talent who could have vied for the top spot in several previous classes."
Those superlatives followed Clowney right through his time with Gamecocks. Now it's former NFL executive Bill Polian making the lofty comparisons:
With all that said, though, if Clowney is really going to beat out this year's top quarterbacks and be the first overall pick by the Houston Texans in the 2014 NFL draft, then there's still work to be done.
First and foremost, Clowney needed to put on a show at the NFL Scouting Combine.
The Hit Heard 'Round the World
It didn't take long for Clowney to start putting on a show in Columbia.
|Jadeveon Clowney 2011|
|Per CFB Stats|
His ridiculous speed off the edge was evident as a 254-pound freshman. In the toughest conference in college football Clowney made an immediate impact, notching eight sacks and tallying 12 tackles for a loss in 2011.
2012, however, was when Clowney truly arrived.
|Jadeveon Clowney 2012|
|Per CFB Stats|
That year, Clowney turned the Southeastern Conference on its head. By season's end, Clowney was swimming in awards. SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Hendricks Award winner. Consensus All-American.
Then this happened:
Clowney's earth-shattering hit in the 2013 Outback Bowl propelled him into superstardom. Heading into his junior season, the sky was the limit. Clowney wasn't just going to be the best defensive player in college football. He was going to win the Heisman Trophy.
|Jadeveon Clowney 2013|
|Per CFB Stats|
Instead, 2013 was closer to a catastrophe than a coronation for Clowney, whose numbers free-fell. The team blamed nagging injuries. Some blamed Clowney himself, claiming that the star had taken his foot off the gas rather than risk the sort of horrific injury that befell former teammate Marcus Lattimore.
Clowney recently offered both an explanation (bone spurs in his ankle) for his drop in stats and a rebuke for those who accused him of taking plays off while speaking with Anwar Richardson of Yahoo Sports:
When I walked into the meeting rooms, all my coaches said, ‘You’re playing’ and ‘Keep playing hard. 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.'
Right now, they’re feeling great, but during the season, it was bothering me a lot. That’s just something you have to face. Sometimes it’s going to be like that. You have to have your back up against the wall in tough times and fight through it. I was fighting through it for my teammates, South Carolina and my fans.
There's no denying that Clowney was the focal point of opposing offenses in 2013, the receiver of constant double and even triple-teams. However, more fuel was recently added to the fire surrounding Clowney's motor (or lack thereof).
As Mike Huguenin of NFL .com reports, South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier gave an interview to the NFL Network's NFL AM. In the interview, Spurrier called Clowney's work ethic "pretty good" and "OK," only to then say it didn't compare to former Gamecocks players such as Lattimore and Melvin Ingram.
A Phenomenal Talent
That duality with Clowney continues when looking at the assessments of scouts and draftniks.
Like just about everyone else with a functioning set of eyes, Chris Fedor of the Northeast Ohio Media Group raved about Clowney's quickness:
Clowney is a freak athlete with a rare blend of size, speed and power. He has a variety of ways to get upfield; a tremendous first step, swim move and bull rush. He has the ability to convert speed to power and can't be handled one on one.
However, it goes much farther than that. Greg Gabriel of the National Football Post wrote that Clowney might be the best defensive prospect he's ever seen.
"Most of you who read this don't need me to tell you that Clowney is great," Gabriel said. "How great is he? Well, I've been doing this since 1981, and he is as good a defensive player as I have ever watched."
He's a modern day Randy Moss. J.C. doesn't have the same type of criminal background as Randy did when he was his age, but the dependence on natural talent and problematic effort concerns are very similar. Difference is, Clowney won't fall out of the top-seven like Randy did.
It was a refrain echoed by NFL Network Analyst Mike Mayock in a recent radio interview with Mad Dog Sports on SiriusXM.
During the interview, Mayock stated he feels Clowney has more upside entering the NFL than Mario Williams did when the Houston Texans made him the first overall pick of the 2006 draft.
|Jadeveon Clowney 2014 NFL Draft Rankings|
|Ranker/Site||DE Rank||OVR Rank||Proj. Round|
|Matt Miller/Bleacher Report||1||2||1|
|Rob Rang/CBS Sports||1||1||1|
|Eric Galko/Optimum Scouting||1||1*||1|
|* QBs not included|
Then Mayock went on to say that given his concerns over Clowney's mental makeup, Mayock would draft Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack before Clowney:
My concern is the work ethic, how much of your resources are you going to have to expend to make sure the kid is where he needs to be when he needs to be there and ultimately, do you trust him? Is he going to be an accountable teammate? And if I am sitting there with a choice between him and Khalil Mack, I’m probably going Khalil Mack…my Khalil Mack [grade] is just about the same as Clowney. So if I look at the two of them and say I trust one and I am not sure about the other…then yeah…Mack to me.
Mayock's colleague Bucky Brooks has been where Mayock is and now bounced back.
Back in November, Brooks lamented that Clowney was "mailing it in" as a junior. "After watching six game tapes of the Gamecocks' star,' Brooks wrote, "I wonder if Clowney will ever live up to the hype and speculation that preceded his junior season."
Cut to February, and Clowney sits atop Brooks' big board:
The freakishly talented pass rusher is an athletic marvel with the potential to wreak havoc on the NFL. Of course, concerns about Clowney's inconsistent motor and questionable judgment (Clowney was cited for speeding on multiple occasions) will prompt coaches and scouts to dig into his character, but the talent and potential far outweighs his immaturity at this point.
You can bet these same arguments are echoing through the hallways of the front offices of NFL teams.
Time to Shine
If some players are headed to the combine to build their draft stock, for Clowney it's more of a polish job. If he falls outside the top five, Mel Kiper's hair will riot.
That isn't to say there isn't work to be done. There will me medical tests galore on those ankles (and everything else), and plenty of questions about his disappointing 2013 season in interviews.
It's when the defensive linemen take the field, however, where Clowney will get to state his case to the Texans.
The drills at the combine couldn't be more suited to Clowney showing off the freakish athleticism that makes him so special. He's capable of doing things that people his size just aren't supposed to be able to do.
Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated didn't mince words when asked about Clowney's biggest challenge in Indianapolis:
On The Dan Patrick Show last week, guest host Kay Adams asked me what Clowney’s biggest challenge at the combine would be. My answer? Avoiding tripping over the dangling tongues of personnel people after each drill. I was only sort of kidding. Clowney probably will get some tough questions about his production, but he’ll likely leave a supremely positive impression on those evaluating him.
Clowney isn't kidding around, either.
As Taylor Price of the San Francisco 49ers website relayed, Clowney made it known during an interview on The Dan Patrick Show that he feels he should be the first player selected in this year's draft.
He also stated his intent to work out in every drill, and has pledged to run a 4.4-second 40-yard dash.
At 266 pounds.
That probably isn't going to happen (if it does, believe me, you'll know), but it isn't hard to imagine Clowney putting on a show of power, speed an agility and leaves tongues wagging from Houston to Oakland.
If that happens, the Texans are going to have a decision to make, one that could impact the franchise for years. Go the quarterback route, or pair the best defensive prospect in years with the NFL's best defensive player.
The Texans were in a similar position back in 2006. Offense vs. defense. Reggie Bush vs. Williams.
We know how that turned out.