South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney is Heisman frontrunner

South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney's Heisman campaign got off to an early start with a crushing blow on Jan. 1.

The first game might still be 18 days away, but it’s time to declare Jadeveon Clowney the frontrunner to win the Heisman Trophy.

Seriously, who’s had a better 2013 than Clowney? The South Carolina defensive end’s campaign got an early start on Jan. 1 when he pancaked a Michigan running back so brutally in the Outback Bowl that the highlight got stuck in a perpetual loop on ESPN.

You’ve seen the hit, of course. Who hasn’t? The original YouTube posting has more than 4 million hits. Somewhere in Michigan an offensive lineman is still writing on a chalkboard “I must never forget to block Jadeveon Clowney again” as he spoon feeds the running back he left defenseless.

The ESPN commentator declared Clowney a Heisman candidate immediately after the 6-foot-6, 274-pound end shot like a missile unblocked through the Wolverines line and separated running back Vincent Smith from his helmet and the ball 6 yards behind the line of scrimmage. While Smith didn’t know what hit him, Clowney was scooping up the ball and trying to keep running.

The fourth-quarter hit helped South Carolina win the game and the video won Clowney the ESPY award for Best Play.

“Everybody else gets a kick out of it,” Clowney said at South Carolina’s media day last Sunday. “Everywhere I go somebody pulls it up on their phone. I said I’ve seen it a thousand times. ... At first, it was greatest thing to talk about. I was happy about it, having fun with it. About a month or two later, I was like all right, that’s enough of that. Something new’s got to jump.”

What’s new will be Clowney becoming the first pure defensive player to win college football’s most prestigious award. That hit was just the campaign trigger, right?

“I don’t think it’s got anything to do with it,” Clowney said. “What I do this year determines the finalists for that and I’m looking forward to a big season for myself.”

Perhaps it’s foolish to tout a defensive end for the Heisman ahead of a host of quarterbacks and running backs surely destined to put up some gaudy numbers, but it’s going to happen assuming the Gamecocks can at least reach the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.

The Heisman voters are just itching to vote in a true defensive player. That was evident last year when Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o finished second behind Texas A&M freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel despite the fact that Te’o was, at best, the third-best defensive player in the country behind both Clowney and Georgia’s Jarvis Jones (who finished sixth and 10th in the balloting, respectively). The Fighting Irish cobbled together an undefeated regular season and gave voters an excuse to get behind the linebacker who served as the team’s emotional leader.

The year before, Louisiana State University defensive back Tyrann Mathieu finished fifth despite character questions, but his candidacy was largely enriched by his punt return prowess, much like Michigan’s Charles Woodson in 1997. The all-around Woodson is still the only defensive starter to win the Heisman, having beaten an all-star crop of candidates that included Peyton Manning, Randy Moss and Ricky Williams.

In 2009, Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh finished fourth in balloting with 161 first-place votes.

So the landscape is leaning towards anointing a purely defensive player as a Heisman winner, and nobody has ever had the preseason name recognition and cache as Clowney.

“I would say Clowney is the best football player in the world,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt recently. “Seriously, I think he might be the very best player who exists today, at any level.”

Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier questioned Richt’s motives in making such a superlative statement.

“That was a little strong right there,” Spurrier said on a national radio show. “Obviously, Jadeveon is probably the best defensive lineman in college football. I think everyone agrees with that. But when you start putting linemen in there with quarterbacks, receivers and running backs, I don’t know what he’s trying to say, if he’s trying to fatten up Jadeveon’s thinking, I hope it doesn’t work.”

Richt later qualified his statement, but didn’t really back down.

“I think I said he might be the best one on the planet and it became news,” Richt said. “I think he’s the best college football player in America. There are a couple of other guys you could debate on that. I think I said that if you give him a couple of years of him learning in the NFL, my bet is he’ll be one of the best if not the best before his career is over in that league. That might be a better way of saying it.“

The best way to say it will be by handing Clowney football’s most iconic trophy on a stage in New York in December. If he puts together a campaign similar to 2012 – with a school-record 13.0 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss – he’ll certainly be invited.

“Jadeveon has had a lot of praise, a lot of attention the entire off-season,” Spurrier said. “I think he’s handled it pretty well. He tries to stay out of the limelight. He doesn’t go to the clubs. He’s not out in public much, except when he has to go to class and so forth. I think he’s handled it well.”

In 2012 Clowney became the first Gamecock since George Rogers in 1980 to be named a unanimous all-American. Chances are good that he could join Rogers on the Heisman roster – the kind of accomplishment they name roads to Williams-Brice Stadium for in Columbia.

South Carolina might have the best road to a title too, benefitting from a schedule that lacks SEC West powers Alabama, LSU or Texas A&M.

Get it done in the East and reach the Georgia Dome on the weekend before Heisman ballots are due, and Clowney will still be the guy everyone has been talking about since Day 1 of 2013.

“(Spurrier) keeps telling me, ‘JD, why they always ask questions about you?’” Clowney said. “I said, ‘I have no idea, Coach.’ I’m tired of it. Just ready to play, show people what I’ve got, and have a good time.”

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