It’s been nearly 14 months since this generation’s hit heard ’round the world, the one that made South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney the early favorite to go No. 1 overall in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Yet, a funny thing has happened to the hulking defensive end on his seemingly predetermined path to NFL stardom. He has not lost any speed, he has not lost any size and he still is a surefire first-round pick.
But thanks to an underwhelming junior campaign marked with questions about his effort and production, the likelihood of the Houston Texans making him the first pick in May no longer seems to be the sure bet it was a year ago.
Thus, the 6-foot-5, 266-pounder who boldly declared Saturday that he hopes to run a 4.4 40-yard dash this week, spent the entirety of his combine media session answering questions about his passion for football and worthiness to be the first player off the board.
“The Super Bowl, defense won that game, shut them down, shut them out,” Clowney said, referring to Seattle’s dominating 43-8 win over a high-powered Denver team. “It takes defense to win championships, hands down.”
Few doubt that Clowney has the potential to be the centerpiece of a championship defense, either.
“I know that he’s got the physical makeup to be the best player in the draft,” said NFL Draft analyst Mike Mayock. “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.”
After going 2-14 last season, however, the Texans have holes all over, not the least of which is quarterback, the most important position in the league.
Sure, Clowney has the talent to be a star, but analysts say others at an actual position of need — like Central Florida’s Blake Bortles, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel — do too, which only heightens the concerns that swirled around Clowney, who was asked if he probably would have gone pro a year ago if he could.
Clowney was coming off a stellar season that included a huge hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl.
“Probably, yes sir,” Clowney said. “I came off a great season. If there was a chance, I probably would have, but right now that’s over with. I had to stay a third year, and I did what I had to do, took care of my business with my team, helped them win games.”
But while the Gamecocks went 11-2 in 2013, it sure didn’t help Clowney’s cause when Steve Spurrier, his coach at South Carolina, recently told the NFL Network that his work habits are just “OK” and that they ranked behind several other draft picks who have come out of the program in recent years.
“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,” Mayock said. “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.”
Clowney, however, defended himself against Spurrier’s comment Saturday.
“I don’t really have (anything) to say about it,” Clowney said. “I believe I did work hard. You pull out any practice tape from last year, you’ll see that. That’s what I told (teams). I’ll tell everybody that. I will always be working hard. No matter where I end up I am going to work hard and give a team everything I’ve got.”
But what about the dip in production? As a sophomore in 2012, he racked up 50 tackles, 21 for loss and 13 sacks only to drop to 40 tackles (11 1/2 for loss) and three sacks as a junior. Clowney does have bone spurs in his foot that will likely require surgery, but on Saturday, he downplayed how much that affected him.
“I played hard through all of that,” Clowney said. “I played with them (in 2012) and had 13.5 sacks. This year, a lot of things didn’t go as planned, like I said before. Teams played me different, played our team different. When we watched them on film, they took 3 or 4 seconds to throw the ball. You watch them after our game and they took like 2 seconds, so they changed the game plan because of our defensive line.”
Clowney, of course, was the primary reason for that. Instilling fear is the mark of a great football player, which is something whoever drafts him will hope he can become. Ultimately, however, it will be up to Clowney to decide if he wants that for himself, something he seems to understand.
“Coming out of high school, I said I wanted to be one of the best in college and I think I proved that,” Clowney said. “Going to the NFL, I want to be one of the best in the NFL, go down in history as one of the best, so I have another stepping stone in my way, and hopefully (I can) take care of business and accomplish that.”