The Clowney Conundrum
Jadeveon Clowney perhaps has more talent than the best pure pass-rusher in NFL history, Lawrence Taylor. So why isn't the South Carolina star a No. 1 pick lock? A look into the 2014 draft's biggest mystery, plus a reader mailbag
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — I don’t have the answer on Jadeveon Clowney, who looked like such a can’t-miss prospect Monday at the NFL Scouting Combine. No one does.
Clowney had one sack in his last 33 college quarters of football. That just confounds me. It bothers me, and how can GM Rick Smith and coach Bill O’Brien, sitting in Houston with the top pick in the draft, watch the performance they watched in Indianapolis, with Clowney showing ridiculous speed and athleticism for such a big man, and not wonder, “Did this man really get one sack in the last 600 or so snaps of his college life? What is wrong with this picture?” On the one hand, Smith and O’Brien have to think of Clowney and J.J. Watt tormenting the AFC South for the next six to eight years. On the other, they have zero questions about Watt’s desire, and probably a hundred about Clowney’s.
I covered Lawrence Taylor for four seasons of his New Jersey prime, 1985 through 1988. He’s the best pure pass-rusher I’ve ever seen. Clowney is two inches taller and 23 pounds heavier than Taylor was, plays stronger from the look of the tape, and Clowney’s 40-yard-dash time basically matches Taylor’s—4.53 seconds.
Stats aren’t everything. And sacks are overrated. But Clowney had one sack and three passes defensed in his last eight games. He had nagging injuries, and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has openly questioned Clowney’s work ethic. People have been quick to pooh-pooh Spurrier’s criticism, because Spurrier failed so spectacularly as the Washington coach when he had his NFL chance. But Spurrier was around Clowney every day. You weren’t. I wasn’t. Does he have an axe to grind? I suppose he might, but why would he? No, I take Spurrier’s comments seriously, and so should Clowney. And so should the teams at the top of this draft.
I mention Taylor because I believe being great as a pass-rusher and pulverizing the quarterback got him out of bed in the morning. And he was a sick, sick competitor. In 1988, the Giants were without Phil Simms, Harry Carson and Carl Banks for a crucial game at New Orleans, and there was absolutely no way Taylor should have played in the game; he had a partially torn pectoral muscle and torn shoulder ligaments, and he played with a harness strapping his upper left arm tight to his torso. Taylor had three sacks, two forced fumbles and seven tackles. Giants, 13-12.
But that’s not the best I’ve seen Taylor. That happened in a replacement game in 1987. The players were on strike, and the league fielded bush-leaguers so the owners wouldn’t have to refund TV fees. With the Giants 0-4, Taylor crossed the picket line and tried to beat the Bills by himself, playing both ways, linebacker and tight end. Buffalo lined up a truck driver from Illinois, Joe Schulte, to block Taylor. Schulte was called for seven penalties on Taylor. In the second half, with the refs not watching, LT drove his fist into Schulte’s throat. “How do you like that, sucker!” Taylor snarled at him. The Giants lost, but owner Wellington Mara thought it was Taylor’s best game as a pro.
My point: Can Clowney have that kind of rare desire, or even 75 percent of it? Can he play through the pain when his team really needs him?
I came here Monday to speak to a couple of Penn State classes, and afterward was able to spend some time with new football coach James Franklin. In the past two seasons at Vanderbilt, Franklin game-planned for Clowney in the SEC twice and Clowney made his share of plays, getting three sacks. I asked Franklin if he saw a consistent force when Vanderbilt prepped for Clowney.
“He’s a once-in-a-lifetime talent,’’ Franklin said in his office at the Penn State football facility. “Although people are going to look at the film and say it’s a risk, it may be a risk worth taking.”
That’s the rub: “may be.” You take a guy that high, you want it to be “will be.”
Said Franklin: “I coached in the ACC when Julius Peppers was at North Carolina, so in a lot of ways I was thinking there was similarities between him and Clowney. With Peppers, we always felt like you were better off running at him, not away. He was so athletic, he could run you down. I remember two years ago, we took the same approach with Clowney. We said we’re going to try to get him to rush up the field and then get a guard or somebody to kick him out and then that would be a great plan. I’ll tell you what: He destroyed us. Physically destroyed us. Running at him, running away from him.
“Teams would try to take him out of the game by tempo and try to wear him down physically, playing fast, which you saw early this year. I don’t think there’s any doubt that he was probably the most game-planned against player in the country, from that perspective. And I think he’s unbelievably gifted.”
So now we wait. Teams send the scouts and assistant coaches with the investigative-reporter gene to Columbia, S.C., to dig into Clowney’s work habits and his love of the game, and they watch the tape, and they see how hard he played consistently. Where Clowney goes, and who takes him, could be a bigger story in the draft than where Johnny Football goes.
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