Return of the Freak

February 19, 2014 by Andy Staples
Jadeveon Clowney averaged 10.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss in his first two seasons at South Carolina. In 2013, he had three sacks and 11.5 TFL. (Alex Menendez/AP)
Jadeveon Clowney averaged 10.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss in his first two seasons at South Carolina. In 2013, he had three sacks and 11.5 TFL. (Alex Menendez/AP)

Ellis Johnson noticed it right away. Two jobs ago, Auburn defensive coordinator Johnson was South Carolina defensive coordinator Johnson. And in the spring of 2008, Johnson visited the practice field at South Pointe High in Rock Hill, S.C., and saw a defensive end who projected off the charts.

“Even as a ninth-grader at spring practice, he just kind of jumped out at you,” Johnson said in February 2011. “I didn’t know how big he would get. He was really a long, rangy kid at that time, but he’s got a huge frame. Those kind of players, those guys who are that good, they stand out even at that age.”

The recruitniks noticed Jadeveon Clowney soon after. As early as anyone could be assigned stars, Clowney was assigned five of them. He was anointed the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2011, and despite the fact that the class contained future stars such as offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, receiver Sammy Watkins and defensive end Stephon Tuitt, no one really argued this point.

The hype grew as National Signing Day 2011 approached. When a site called AthleteVault.com uploaded a video of Clowney’s senior season highlights in December 2010, it was passed around via e-mail and social media by everyone who loves college football. The first four plays were all anyone needed to see. On the first, South Pointe’s opponent runs a perfectly executed draw. Clowney and his teammates are fooled, rushing hard upfield as the back grabs the ball and bursts through a huge hole. Against anyone else, this is a touchdown. Easy. But Clowney changes direction and gives chase. He seems to cover 10 yards with each stride. Forty-eight yards down the field, he grabs the ballcarrier and dumps him. On the second play, Clowney is being blocked by an offensive tackle when he intercepts a pass and returns it for a touchdown. The third play is a garden-variety—for Clowney in high school—toss-the-quarterback-like-a-rag-doll sack. The victim? Myrtle Beach’s Everett Golson, who two years later would lead Notre Dame to the BCS title game.

The fourth play is the clincher. South Pointe’s offense is backed up to its 2-yard line. Clowney is lined up as the lone back. The play is a fairly basic stretch. Clowney bursts through the hole, sidesteps a safety and runs for a 98-yard touchdown. At the time, he is 6-6 and 247 pounds.

After those four plays, it became obvious college football would be but a three-year obstacle standing between Clowney and the top of the NFL draft. This isn’t basketball. Not many players look ready to jump from high school to the pros. Clowney did.

We’re about to find out if Clowney can fulfill that vast promise he showed as early as ninth grade. At South Carolina, he was good as a freshman and great as a sophomore. So great, in fact, that the question of whether Clowney should sit out his junior season to preserve his health and draft position became a popular offseason talk-radio topic in 2013. That he was so underwhelming as a junior—while complaining of nagging injuries—only fed the notion that Clowney didn’t want to be playing for a scholarship when he knew he could be playing for much more.

Clowney had been the projected No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft for so long, but his play—and the positional needs of the teams at the top of the draft—caused other names to rise to the top of the mock drafts. The top spot was considered Clowney’s rightful place for four years, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t. His competitiveness kicked in. Clowney has resolved to convince the Texans—or some team willing to trade—that the past few months were an anomaly. He plans to participate fully at this week’s combine to ensure NFL coaches and executives don’t forget which guy was dropping jaws back when all the other guys in the draft were popping zits.

We know Clowney can play. His 2012 tape has demonstrates that. But his 2013 tape raises questions about his motivation. He can make everyone forget those questions with a successful trip to Indianapolis. He likely will put up adequate numbers on the 225-pound bench press (low-to-mid 20s). If he has trained well, he will blow away the decision-makers with his other measurables. He has been quoted in recent weeks saying he’d like to run in the mid-to-high 4.4-second range. That’s receiver/tailback speed. Clowney weighs 270 pounds. Meanwhile, his vertical jump (mid-to-high 30s) will look more at home at the NBA’s combine. Again, Clowney weighs 270 pounds.

Clowney should be able to take full advantage of the NFL’s love of measurables. The question is whether he can convince a team that desperately needs a quarterback—and already has a great defensive end—to choose him. Or can he be so impressive that another team is compelled to give up some valuable picks to the Texans in order to take him?

Clowney’s play as a junior at South Carolina introduced the first inkling of doubt that he might not be a dominant pro. He can erase much of that doubt this week if he shows up in Indianapolis looking like an older, wiser and stronger version of the guy Ellis Johnson saw on South Pointe’s practice field six years ago.

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