08/31/2013 10:05 AM
Clowney set back in game one?
How many times did you see Jadeveon Clowney’s hit this summer? Honest question. How many times were you in a sports bar, an airport or your living room when “The Hit” -- with Michigan RB Vincent Smith’s helmet landing somewhere near Naples -- appeared on a screen near you?
South Carolina’s junior defensive end is still the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft, pretty much no matter what. He is still a legitimate Heisman contender, still among the favorites.
No, he didn’t look quite right on many plays Thursday night in South Carolina’s 27-10 win against North Carolina, but the fact that he’s taking heat for his perceived lack of conditioning (potential factors could have included a pregame stomach bug he’d been dealing with, or the fact that he says he often has stamina issues in opening games) says more about the expectation level surrounding him -- in part because of that highlight clip against Michigan -- than it does about his ability to have a dominant 2013 season.
"You kidding me?" one opposing coach said via text, when I asked him during the lightning delay what he thought about Clowney's play. "I don’t think they’re going to cut him."
Probably not. And more important for the Gamecocks, the strength they showed at positions around Clowney indicates that they are a very real SEC title contender and a dark horse for the national title.
One Gamecocks staffer told me earlier this week that he was concerned about the offense, but it was really sharp early on and it was stout enough to sit on the ball in the second half and play keep-away from the Heels' offense. That plan worked well against Clemson’s tempo in last season’s win over the Tigers, and it was a similar setup versus North Carolina.
I remember talking to offensive line coach Shawn Elliott back in the spring and he was atypically optimistic about what sort of line the team would field. You could see why after watching it Thursday. A line that averages 322 pounds owned the line of scrimmage against a so-so UNC defensive line, fueling a 6.0 yards-per-carry average (which is a still-solid 4.1 even if you take away sophomore RB Mike Davis’ 75-yard touchdown run).
There’s a different toughness and attitude that’s visible when observing the line from play to play. The entire time I was covering the South Carolina beat, from 2007-11, the eternal question was, "When is Steve Spurrier going to find a quarterback and an offensive line?" Both areas are no longer liabilities, for sure.
Davis lived up to his billing, thanks to Spurrier’s suggestion, as one of my top 50 breakout players. His 75-yard touchdown run in the second half showed some breakaway speed that the position had been missing; Marcus Lattimore, good as he was, might have been caught from behind after about 25 or 30 yards. Receiver is something of a concern, and position coach Steve Spurrier Jr. told me this week that they’re really missing a jitterbug-type wideout like Ace Sanders, but Shaq Roland’s early statement on the 65-yard first-quarter touchdown pass showed he might be ready for a step up as a sophomore.
The defense’s performance, even amid a so-so effort from Clowney, shows that there is a lot more to the unit than No. 7. Defensive coordinator Lorenzo "Whammy" Ward subbed all over the field against North Carolina’s tempo offense (a good sign for the unit’s depth), and the D held the Tar Heels to just 3.7 yards per play. Four D-linemen other than Clowney had a share of a sack. Clowney didn’t flash in the highlights or the statistics, but UNC deserves some of the blame for that, as QB Bryn Renner got the ball out quickly most of the game and there were several running plays directed away from him.
It’s worth remembering that during last season’s impressive campaign, Clowney still had four games in which he didn’t record a sack, including the bowl game against Michigan, scene of “The Hit.” Elite defensive ends such as Clowney can make a consistent impact, but it isn’t as if they’re going to blow up a play on each series. It’s going to be a seasonlong struggle for Heisman voters to measure his value versus those of QBs who touch the ball on every offensive play.
Clowney will have a big stage next weekend on which to bounce back, as the Gamecocks travel to Athens to play Georgia. How he plays in that game figures to have a much bigger impact on his Heisman candidacy than the UNC game. “I guess he needs to prove them wrong next week,” one of South Carolina’s assistants texted me early Friday morning.
In the meantime, there’s no reason to be any less optimistic about the potential for Clowney and the Gamecocks this season than there was Thursday morning.