Oh, he’s still “The Freak,” his career highlights perfect for a certain soundtrack if Rick James wasn’t singing about “a very kinky girl.” Jadeveon Clowney remains ample justification for the Jets or Raiders or Jaguars to tank their seasons. He’s still the most breathtaking player in college football and the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL draft, and anyone who says he’s overhyped should be bound and gagged in a dark, frozen room and forced to watch a repetitive reel of his rocking-viral hammer smash of Michigan’s Vincent Smith, whose helmet is still bouncing down Dale Mabry Boulevard somewhere west of Tampa.
But to win the Heisman Trophy, a defensive player must be close to dominant from the first game to the last. And Clowney was far from it in South Carolina’s season opener, looking shockingly gassed and short of conditioning in an underwhelming performance against North Carolina. When a defensive player hasn’t won the sport’s top individual award since Charles Woodson in 1997, and a defensive lineman hasn’t won it since Leon Hart in 1949, well, Clowney needed to launch his campaign with three or four sacks to stay central in the Heisman chatter.
He had no sacks, blaming it on a stomach virus that we may or may not completely buy into.
Worse, he was winded and often had to leave the game when the opponents tried wearing down the South Carolina defense. When asked specifically about Clowney relative to his team’s lack of conditioning, Steve Spurrier didn’t protect his Heisman candidate as so many other coaches might.
“Do you watch what I was watching?” said the Head Ball Coach, not mentioning the stomach virus. “No, I don’t have to say it. You write what you see. We’ll try and work on our conditioning for the entire team.”
That quickly, Clowney moved off his private Heisman island and waved in a group of skilled quarterbacks, most of whom will consistently impress us this season. They include Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Alabama’s AJ McCarron, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, Georgia’s Aaron Murray and, of course, reigning Heisman winner and chief knucklehead Johnny Manziel, currently known as Johnny Halftime after the pathetic decision by a toothless, irrelevant NCAA to wrist-slap him for one half of the Rice game amid pay-for-autographs allegations.
To his credit, the affable Clowney didn’t shy from the story line. “You can ask all the questions about conditioning,” he told reporters. “Let’s get to it.”
He said he had trouble sleeping the night before, but didn’t cite it as an alibi. “I was pretty tired, but you have to play through that,” Clowney said. “I was still coming off the ball and that’s what matters. I might be bent over sometimes but when that ball snaps, I was getting off. … It’s just one of those games, you have to push yourself.”
The stars of South Carolina’s 27-10 win were quarterback Connor Shaw, a stout offensive line and new featured running back Mike Davis, who broke open a tight game with a 75-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Shortly after that, lightning flashed against the skies above Willliams-Brice Stadium. Maybe it was Mother Nature’s way of announcing the Gamecocks as a national title contender, though not because of anything Clowney had done. He even was subjected to a cheap shot by backup offensive lineman Kiaro Holts, who seemed to intentionally aim for the back of Clowney’s right knee in a hit that was rightfully accompanied by a clipping call.
If he already has lost the Heisman, the beauty of this kid is that he doesn’t care. During an offseason of relentless attention, including an award he accepted at the ESPYs, Clowney routinely returned home to Rock Hill, S.C., where he would play with his dog. “Hats off to my defense,” he said. “As long as we get the win, that’s all that matters to me.”
Shaking Roger Goodell’s hand will matter, too, far more than a chunk of bronze.