There’s a reason why South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney made my preseason list of 10 SEC Football Players Who will Disappoint in 2013. Though I have to admit, I didn’t predict the then-projected No. 1 2014 NFL Draft pick would give us a complete lack of conditioning and motivation (allegedly). I simply said that as a defensive player favored to win the Heisman Trophy, Clowney would have a very tough time living up to that expectation.
At this point, it’s pretty clear he won’t win college football’s most prestigious individual award. Honestly, Clowney isn’t even on track to make the SEC all-conference team. His coach doesn’t even know, or apparently care, whether he will put his pads on week to week.
“He may not be able to play next week. I don’t know,” Steve Spurrier said following the Gamecocks’ 35-28 win over Kentucky. “But we’re not going to worry about it, I can assure you of that.”
And why should he? It’s not like Clowney has given him or anyone else any reason to want him on the field. After all, many are starting to wonder just how much he wants to be out there.
Before this season, few questioned Clowney’s desire to play – much less his ability to make plays – since he arrived on campus in 2011. He was the SEC freshman of the year that fall and followed that breakout year with 13 sacks and a school-record 23.5 tackles for loss in his sophomore season to become the league’s defensive player of the year.
But Clowney has not looked like that player through five games this year, contributing only 12 tackles and two sacks. He’s been slowed by a number of extenuating circumstances – dehydration and a flu bug against North Carolina, another virus against UCF and bone spurs in his right foot throughout the fall.
The last time anyone can remember Clowney being Clowney was when he stormed through two blockers and lit up Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl, sending his helmet hurdling through the air while forcing and recovering a fumble. And looking like a supernatural being in the process.
After that game, everyone assumed Clowney would get drafted No. 1 whether he entered the draft last April or following this season. Now, his toughness and motivation are being called into question, and the Gamecocks defense is struggling to close out games whether he’s on the field or the sideline.
Three games ago, South Carolina led Vanderbilt 28-0 before holding on 35-25. The following week, the Gamecocks were up 28-10 at UCF when the Knights posted two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and South Carolina needed to field an onside kick with under two minutes left to close out a 28-25 win. Last week, the Gamecocks blew a 21-0 lead against a Kentucky team that had previously scored more than 13 points in only one game.
If South Carolina is to have any shot at winning the SEC East, Clowney will need to get his act together, or get healthy, or get over whatever is holding him back. Either way, his coach and his team will go on competing with or without him.
If Clowney “wants to play, we will welcome him to come play for the team if he wants,” Spurrier said. “But he if doesn’t want to play, he doesn’t have to play. Simple as that.”
Whether the criticism is fair or unfair, it’s unlikely the questions about whether Clowney is more committed to the South Carolina team or to protecting his draft status will end unless he returns to his previous beastly form. Asked Saturday about Clowney’s commitment to the Gamecocks, Spurrier said, “You’ll have to ask him that.”
To be fair, if Clowney is protecting his NFL future, his apprehension is understandable, considering he watched Marcus Lattimore suffer a major knee injury last year and drop from a first-round lock to a fourth-round selection by the San Francisco 49ers.
I can’t say he hasn’t had legitimate health issues holding him back this year. What I can say is that at some point the 6-foot-6, 274-pound sleeping giant will awaken. When he does, woe be unto the opposing offense.
Somewhere in Fayetteville, Bret Bielema and Arkansas are praying Clowney’s breakout performance doesn’t happen this week – that’s assuming he plays, of course.