Tuesday afternoon, South Carolina’s football program kicks off spring practice.
It also kicks off life without Jadeveon Clowney.
The Gamecocks’ tremendously talented defensive end will be otherwise occupied, training for the NFL draft. The next time you’ll see Clowney on campus will be for USC’s pro day, set for April 2.
Is that a bad thing for the Gamecocks? Not necessarily. Clowney is potentially a once-in-a-generation defensive talent, but his departure for the NFL following his junior season just might have been the best thing for all parties involved.
Clowney will be a top-five draft pick. And Steve Spurrier and co. will be free of the controversy that seemed to follow the star incessantly over the last year.
His move could be, for the Gamecocks, addition by subtraction.
Spurrier isn’t shedding any tears, at least publicly, over his star’s departure. He made headlines last week with less-than-glowing reviews of Clowney’s work ethic in an interview on the NFL Network (via CBSSports.com's Jeff Reynolds):
He was OK. It wasn’t like Marcus Lattimore. You know, every player is different. His work habits are pretty good, they're not quite like Lattimore, a Stephon Gilmore, Melvin Ingram, some of those guys. But when the ball is snapped he's got something no one else has.
Clowney was a consensus All-American as a sophomore in 2012, putting up incredible numbers. He had 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss and was seemingly at his best when the spotlight shone brightest. The defensive end piled up a Memorial Stadium-record 4.5 sacks in a win at rival Clemson, and his Capital One Bowl hit of Michigan tailback Vincent Smith was the most replayed highlight in recent memory on ESPN.
His early departure for the NFL was such a lock that some wondered if he would sit out his junior season to preserve his health, a topic he and South Carolina were forced to quash.
But 2013 didn’t live up to the lofty heights Clowney had set a year earlier. Opponents consistently double- and triple-teamed him, and opposing offenses often ran away from his side of the field to avoid him.
He also struggled with injuries, including bone spurs in his right foot and bruised ribs.
The rib injury forced him to miss a game against Kentucky, and miscommunication over his status (Spurrier was not told until 45 minutes before the game that Clowney wouldn’t play) led him to fire off an angry barb to reporters afterward.
“If he wants to play, we will welcome him to come play for the team if he wants," Spurrier told reporters. He later walked back those comments after learning of the miscommunication, but the damage was done.
Clowney had only three sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013.
NFL draft experts have major concerns about his desire.
On a recent conference call with reporters, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said Clowney “has the physical makeup to be the best player in 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 and he was obviously the first (overall) pick (of the Houston Texans in 2006).
So from a physical skill set, 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. He can play multiple places on the defense, so all those things check off.
That said, NFL teams should be thinking buyer beware, Mayock believes.
My biggest concern is just what's his mental makeup and how important is it to him when he gets a big paycheck to become the best player in football, or is he just going to be happy to be a millionaire? So I think that's the most critical checking point here from an organization is finding out what the motivation, what kind of kid are they going to get. I know what the football player is when motivated. I just want to know what kind of kid I'm getting.
Without Clowney, South Carolina’s defense will unquestionably be less talented, but it’ll almost certainly be calmer.
Rising sophomore Darius English and rising junior Gerald Dixon are the top candidates to replace Clowney. South Carolina is also replacing departed starter Chaz Sutton, so figure on those two as the leaders in the clubhouse, according to Bleacher Report’s Charlie Bennett.
Dixon was greatly improved as Sutton’s understudy, and English (who stands 6’6”, 226 pounds, about 50 pounds lighter than Clowney) was also capable in stretches.
The former had 17 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss in 2013, per the school's official athletics website, while the latter had 19 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks.
Both will likely be in the mix to play early behind Dixon and English.
If properly motivated, Clowney will terrorize NFL quarterbacks for a generation. Replacing him on South Carolina’s defense is next to impossible for one player. But if English and Dixon develop into capable starters and the freshmen contribute as well, there’s no reason for the Gamecocks’ defensive front to slip.
At the very least, it’ll be a quieter group with less controversy. And sometimes, that’s not such a bad tradeoff.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
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