The Gamecocks All-American defensive end wears a walking boot to protect a recurrence of bone spurs in his foot, an injury he’s dealt with since high school. Clowney’s had all aspects of his game analyzed this season and has been criticized for his conditioning even though opponents have been running away from whatever side the 6-foot-6, 274-pound lineman lines up on.
Although he’s picked up sacks in his past two games, it hasn’t been the start many expected from Clowney, considered the game’s top player throughout the offseason.
The off week comes at “a great time,” Clowney said. “We need it.”
Few probably need it more than Clowney, who was expected to put up eye-popping stats this season after his helmet-flying hit on Michigan’s Vincent Smith last New Year’s Day became the talk of college football.
In week one, TV cameras caught Clowney breathing heavy as North Carolina’s high-speed offense played away from him. Clowney, who said he was dealing a stomach virus, had three-tackles and no sacks in South Carolina’s 27-10 victory.
Clowney was kept in check a week later at Georgia in a 41-30 loss to the Bulldogs, although he did get his first sack of the season. The lasting image of that contest was Clowney breaking through the line and Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray heaving a long pass down field that Justin Scott-Wesley caught for an 85-yard touchdown.
Things came together for the Gamecock defenseagainst Vanderbilt when it held them to under 300 yards in a 35-25 victory. The defense collected five sacks, including a critical one by Clowney in the second half that jarred the ball loose for a fumble to stop a Commodores rally.
Still, afterward it was Clowney’s foot pain that took center stage.
Clowney said he’s handled the pain since high school and hopes that two weeks between games will reduce discomfort.
“It’s painful. I’m out here playing on it, though, so I’m just trying to give everything I’ve got on it,” he said. “Who knows what’s going to happen out there? It doesn’t really bother me when I am out there much. It’s just builds up pain. The more I keep going on it, the more it bothers me.”
Clowney said he’ll likely have the foot “cleaned out” after the season, when he begins prepping for the NFL draft following the last of his three seasons with the Gamecocks. Clowney is considered the top NFL prospect for next spring’s draft.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said Sunday he’d have had Clowney undergo the procedure this offseason if he had anticipated his lineman would be this bothered by the foot.
“Just recently, I think, it started bothering him a little bit,” Spurrier said.
The coach pointed out that other players, including cornerback Victor Hampton and last year’s safety D.J. Swearinger, had dealt with similar bone spur problems and played effectively.
Clowney’s foot problem has not kept him from practicing and he believes the down time will help.
“I need it to get my foot back together,” the junior said.
The question was raised during offseason whether Clowney should play this season and risk injury — and possibly becoming the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft.
Clowney and his family took out an NCAA allowable $5 million insurance policy should he face significant injury. Neither Clowney nor his coaches believe the bone spurs present a serious problem for him going forward this season.
Clowney, the reigning SEC defensive player of the year, is just happy to be getting help from his defensive teammates. Clowney was pleased to see defensive end Chaz Sutton and tackle Kelcy Quarles finish off plays with sacks when Vanderbilt attempted to play away from him.
“I just tell them, ‘Man, it’s time for y’all to shine,’” Clowney said. “They showed up” against Vanderbilt.