COLUMBIA, S.C. – Jadeveon Clowney was up throughout the night with a stomach virus, didn't have a pregame meal save for a banana and a couple of grapes, then spent the better part of five hours facing off against a 6-foot-7, 305-pound NFL prospect in 90-degree heat. His team allowed one touchdown in a convincing 27-10 win, and he got rolled up in the fourth quarter with an illegal block.
And for this he got grilled about his conditioning. For this he got shoved to the back of the line in the Heisman Trophy race.
This is the problem with the highlight era we live in. This is the downside of the hype the media (and Clowney's brilliance) built over the summer. We're expecting something memorable from Clowney during every game, and the standard for memorable is much tougher on defense.
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Clowney was not just average on Thursday in South Carolina's opening-night win over visiting North Carolina. He was a force. He lined up at nose tackle and burst headlong through the line. He lined up at both ends and did the same. He pressured Tar Heels quarterback Bryn Renner often. He shoved star offensive lineman James Hurst backward more than once. Even when he didn't enter the pocket, he helped cut off the field. He made a very fast offense have to move even faster. But he didn't have "The Hit." He didn't de-cleat or decapitate anyone. He had three tackles and three hurries. So the college football world shrugs.
The debate about Clowney's conditioning is silly considering what kind of shape he's in and what kind of Sahara hot – temp around (94 degrees at game time) – it was on the field at Williams-Brice Stadium.
"It wasn't just Clowney," South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. "I think the entire defense got winded."
Ward called the Tar Heel offense "the fastest team I've ever seen." Not easy to slow that down in such conditions, in the first game of the season. The Gamecocks did. North Carolina had one touchdown and 3.7 yards per play.
When asked if he was tired, Clowney smiled and said, "Ah, man."
Yes, the end of the game found him sitting on a chair on the Gamecocks sideline, gasping for breath while his teammates slapped five and celebrated. Clowney held a towel to his mouth and stared straight ahead, still breathing heavily several minutes after he exited the game. He was often seen out on the field, hands on hips, caked in sweat – dried and fresh.
That's what happens when you have to go through two and sometimes three players to get to the quarterback. Clowney did just that on one signature first-quarter play you won't see on YouTube. He pushed Hurst back, dodged a blocking running back, then reversed field to close to within a whisper of Renner. The quarterback got the throw off – incomplete – and the Tar Heels had to punt. But there was no crushing hit, so the play is forgotten.
This was a unique college football game. Many at home tuned in to just watch a defensive player. The people in the stadium and certainly in the press box found Clowney before every play, taking their eyes off the quarterback and the ball to hone in on a generational talent. Even after South Carolina went up 7-0 on a pretty 65-yard pass from Connor Shaw to Shaq Roland, it felt like an appetizer. The crowd had erupted in a swell of noise when Clowney's Outback Bowl hit on Michigan's Vincent Smith was replayed before kickoff, and it was clear the fans craved something like that.
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But that's a once-in-a-career play; it's not going to happen every game. It may not happen ever again. That doesn't mean Clowney isn't the most outstanding player in college football. It just means Clowney is caught between inflated expectations and an even more inflated standard for a defensive player to get an invite to the Heisman ceremony in December.
And sitting out a few plays, which Clowney did, is not reflective of anything other than the position he plays and the physical demands on every defensive linemen. We usually don't even notice.
The best indication of Clowney's play comes not from social media but from Hurst, who was charged with blocking him. Was Clowney disappointing? Tired? Sluggish? Lethargic?
"He was the quickest I've ever played against," Hurst said after the game.
The two went back and forth all night, telling each other "we tired!" in between snaps. They were both stellar. The weather delay of nearly two hours only made things harder, as plenty of players cramped up. Clowney could have sat out the end of the fourth quarter, as the Gamecocks more or less had the game won. Instead he played until the end, even sustaining a cheap shot when North Carolina offensive lineman Kiaro Holts rolled into his legs. Clowney limped off and bent over while trainers looked at his right knee.
Still, he came back out and nearly had a sack.
"I was still coming off the ball and that's what matters," he said. "I might be bent over sometimes but when the ball snaps, I was getting off."
Only with less than a minute to go did Clowney wave for a replacement. He took a seat and grabbed a towel. He said later he was "heated" because he didn't make that last play.
Asked about a TV commentator's criticism during the game – Clowney's conditioning was called into question on a number of occasions, as was him taking a number of plays off – the 6-foot-6, 275-pounder said, "Did you see the score? That's all that matters."
It's a twisted type of praise that people may have been disappointed in Clowney's performance Thursday. He's built his own hype with remarkable play not only in college, but dating back to high school. Some have talked of the "legend" of Jadeveon Clowney, but there is no "legend." The man is real. He's that good.
Just ask one of the many NFL scouts assembled here to watch him. Scouts can't give interviews on the record, but one said he's been covering the southeast for nearly a decade and he's never seen a player this good – offense or defense. He mentioned Clowney's raw power, his instincts, and his smarts. As he spoke, the Vincent Smith hit came on a TV overhead and the scout pointed. He said he was most impressed not with the hit, but with the quickness with which Clowney picked up the ball. He isn't just some oversized freak. He's aware. He knows where everyone is. He acts quickly and reacts even faster. He did that Thursday, as always.
At halftime, when people around the college football world wondered what was wrong with Clowney, the scout was found tapping at his phone with a bemused look on his face. Asked if he'd seen anything to change his mind about Clowney, the scout smirked.
"Nope!" he said.
What about his conditioning?
"Nope!" he said.
By the time the rains came, the scout had left the stadium.
He had long since seen enough to know enough about Jadeveon Clowney.
For at least one informed observer, there was nothing more to prove.
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