WHEN YOU ENTER THE SEASON AS THE PRESUMED NO. 1 PICK, THERE'S ONLY ONE DIRECTION TO GO. OR IS THERE? EVEN WITH INJURY, ILLNESS AND INCREASED ATTENTION, JADEVEON CLOWNEY, TO MANY EYES, IS STILL THE 1
Put yourself in Jadeveon Clowney's place. Since you were old enough to squeeze a helmet over your ears, you've been told that your destiny awaits on Sunday afternoons. You were the best and most highly recruited high school football player in the country. "Like some bulletproof Superman," says Bobby Carroll, your coach at South Pointe High School in Rock Hill, S.C. Last fall, as a sophomore playing for the home-state Gamecocks, you were probably the best college football player in the country, Heisman Trophy results be damned. You are north of 6'6" and 274 pounds and run faster than some wide receivers. You know it is time to move on, yet it's not allowed. You must wait another year.
That year will be spent in a football limbo of the NFL's making: The league doesn't allow anyone to enter its ranks until he is three years out of high school, no matter how qualified he might be. You will be expected to deliver brave and relentless performances for your team in pursuit of a national championship, but if you are injured in that effort you will be called a fool for risking vast wealth and fame. He should have sat out the year! The season will place you in a giant fishbowl in which your every move is scrutinized. Failure to chase a stretch play from the back side will be interpreted as quitting on your teammates, your family and your state. Claiming injury will come across as malingering. And every opponent will block you as if you were a cross between Deacon Jones and Lawrence Taylor.
Does this sound like fun?
Predictably, Clowney's junior—i.e., last—year of college football has been a Dumpster fire. What began with earnest, almost longing assertions that Clowney could become the first true defensive player to win the Heisman has devolved into a public mess involving at least five injuries or ailments. These have been punctuated with a hissy fit by Clowney's perpetually unplugged Ol' Ball Coach, coupled with a distinct lack of obvious production that has draftniks across this great football nation drooling in anticipation of using that dreaded word freefall and, not least, the looming presence of a hip-hop mogul-turned-agent. As Clowney's father, David Morgan, a muscular ex-con who was paroled when Clowney was 13 and is now tight with his only son, said last week, "Build 'em up to tear 'em down, right? That's O.K. That's O.K. He's fine. He just likes to play football."
THE CLOWNEY drama began last spring with rumors that he might sit out his junior year, fulfilling the NFL's three-year mandate while in street clothes to avoid injury. Clowney never had any intention of sitting out. "Some people think I'm not playing this year," Clowney told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED last January, before the speculation became rampant. "I'm looking forward to playing." In July, South Carolina confirmed it was doing a routine investigation after Clowney posted on Instagram a screen grab of a tweet reporting that he was being pursued by Jay Z and his Roc Nation Sports agency and added the caption, "You kno we about to turn up. Dream coming true." (Clowney was cleared to play by the university.)
Then came the injuries and illnesses. A bruised shoulder early in camp. A stomach virus in the season opener, Aug. 29 against North Carolina, which slowed him to the point that he looked out of shape. Bone spurs in his foot in mid-September, which left him in a walking boot after a four-tackle, one-sack performance against Vanderbilt. More stomach problems during a Sept. 28 win over Central Florida. Through all of this, Clowney performed unevenly; he totaled 12 tackles (three for losses), two sacks and four hurries in the first four games of the season. (In the first four games of 2012 he had 17 tackles, seven for losses, 4½ sacks and two hurries.)
After a 41--30 loss to Georgia in the second game of the year, Clowney expressed frustration. "I told the coaches you've got to put me somewhere else, somewhere I can make some plays and help my team get in position to win," he said to reporters. "But [Georgia] took me right out of the game." Three weeks later Clowney didn't dress for South Carolina's win over Kentucky in Columbia, and afterward coach Steve Spurrier noted that Clowney had informed him only minutes before kickoff that a painful rib injury would keep him from playing. Spurrier then added, in classic Spurrier fashion, "We will welcome him to come play for the team if he wants to, but if he doesn't want to play, he doesn't have to play."
Two days later Spurrier apologized for his comments, attributed the contretemps to poor communication and added magnanimously, "If he never plays another snap here, we all should be thankful and appreciative that [Clowney] came to South Carolina." The Gamecocks won 22 games in Clowney's first two seasons in Columbia, the most in back-to-back years in school history; that's been part of his gift to his home state university. After practice that day Clowney told reporters that his ribs were hurting but assured them, "I haven't played my last game here." All of this, unsurprisingly, was chum for the maw of Twitter, spit back out with relentless and contradictory vitriol. Fox Sports wrote that Clowney should quit immediately. ESPN wrote that he still has time to rescue his legacy before he runs off to the NFL.
Clowney dialed up Carroll, his high school coach, the week following the Kentucky game. "He told me, 'I'm hurt,'" says Carroll. "'Big C, why is everybody questioning me?' And it's all these people, like Rivals and ESPN, that made him out to be the greatest thing the world, and now they're turning on him." It's worth noting that this career angst hadn't been Clowney's conversational priority; he and Carroll first talked at length about PlayStation4, which is due for a November release. So Clowney's football worries haven't completely overwhelmed him. (He was not made available for an interview for this story.)
On Oct. 12, in his first game following the Kentucky fiasco, Clowney had only two tackles in a 52--7 rout of Arkansas. Last Saturday in a 23--21 loss to Tennessee in Knoxville, he had a season-high five tackles, including 2½ for losses. Now the Gamecocks are 5--2 and all but eliminated from the SEC East race (trailing Missouri by two losses). With Missouri, Florida, Clemson and a bowl game left on the schedule, it will be a mighty challenge to win 11 again.
For most of the fall, opponents have devised their strategy to neutralize Clowney. "You have to have a plan for him, or he's going to embarrass you," says Vanderbilt offensive line coach Herb Hand. "We have a KYP rule around here. Know Your Personnel. We wanted to know where Clowney was, so we could slide our protection to him, or chip him with a tight end or a running back." Hand added that Vandy left tackle Wes Johnson did a good job against Clowney in several one-on-one situations and that the Commodores were set to mirror Clowney with Johnson wherever he lined up.
Central Florida shadowed Clowney with a tight end; wherever Clowney lined up—and Spurrier moved him over the center on a few occasions—the tight end would line up behind the primary blocker to execute a double team. "I've never seen that happen over the center," says Spurrier, "and I know Clowney is frustrated by that." Critics have questioned Clowney's effort against this treatment. Yet there is also the memory of teammate and friend Marcus Lattimore's gruesome knee injury last October while playing in his mandatory third college season instead of the NFL. "We all saw that. Jadeveon saw it, too," says Spurrier. "That's on his mind. He's going to make millions of dollars pretty soon."
In faraway NFL offices, however, Clowney's immediate future seems safe. There is enormous belief in his otherworldly skill set, junior year be damned. "I was skeptical about him last year," said one veteran NFL executive who did not want to be identified talking about a draft prospect. "Sometimes people build players up just to sound like know-it-alls. But the first time I put on the video, within a matter of minutes, [I realized] this kid is really good, maybe one of the most accomplished true defensive ends we've seen in the last 20 years."
This troubled autumn? It's almost as if it's not happening. "It really is the year before a kid comes out—that's the true indicator," says the executive. "And he was great last year. Would we like to see him just go old school, balls to the wall on every play? Sure. But who really does that anymore? This kid has been on a pedestal his whole life. But he's not a bad kid, there aren't any character issues. His issues are benign in light of his ability. A little immaturity. He'll have to adjust to the pace of the league, they all do. But when he puts his foot in the ground and redirects to the passer.... Whoa."
The NFL draft is six months away, with the promise of millions. South Carolina has five regular-season games to play; dreams of its first SEC title, or even more, have evaporated before Halloween. In the middle is Clowney, alone on his own football island. One foot in a dangerous present, one foot in a lucrative future.
TWO DAYS LATER, SPURRIER APOLOGIZED FOR HIS COMMENTS, ADDING, "IF [CLOWNEY] NEVER PLAYS ANOTHER SNAP HERE, WE SHOULD BE THANKFUL."
"YOU HAVE TO HAVE A PLAN FOR HIM OR HE'S GOING TO EMBARRASS YOU," VANDERBILT OFFENSIVE LINE COACH HERB HAND SAYS OF CLOWNEY.
Jadeveon Clowney lost the top spot on Andy Staples's Big Board. See if he can climb back to No. 1 when the rankings are updated every Tuesday.
Photograph by SCOTT CUNNINGHAM FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
FULL SPEED Clowney, who at 6'6" and 274 pounds runs the 40 in 4.5 seconds, has taken the field knowing that an injury could end a lucrative future.
FRANK MATTIA/ZUMAPRESS.COM (SPURRIER)
BATTLE SCENES Clowney had his best game of the year against Tennessee, two weeks after a rib injury kept him off the field and seemed to upset Spurrier.
[See caption above]
Photograph by SCOTT CUNNINGHAM FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
ORANGE CRUSH Double teams have hurt Clowney's stats but they've freed up his teammates, which has helped USC rank 21st in total defense.