The freakish athlete with the easy grin and questions galore about his work ethic is poised to bring the whole package to the NFL in May’s draft. Whether the South Carolina defensive will go No. 1 overall to the Houston Texans is one of the hottest topics in the league.
There’s no debating this, though: Clowney loves making big plays – and he’s ready to do that from the outset at the next level.
“I think I work just as hard as anybody,” Clowney says. “If you pick me and pair me with guys, I’m going to try and outwork them also.”
Clowney has been pointed to the NFL ever since then-South Pointe High coach Bobby Carroll heard about the 6-foot-3 eighth grader walking through his team’s weight room. “Who is that?” Carroll asked.
Now 6-6 and 266 pounds, Clowney has set off similar reactions throughout his life.
But he’s been a lightning rod for attention.
Clowney’s youth coaches say they had to stay on top of him to make sure he played up to his enormous potential. It was the same situation at South Carolina.
It seemed like smooth sailing for the sophomore when he capped his most successful season (school records of 13 sacks and 23½ tackles for loss) with his signature moment: a helmet-popping hit on Michigan’s Vincent Smith in that year’s Outback Bowl.
He became a face of college football and his every move was videotaped, broken down and debated. Critics saw him breathing heavily in last season’s opener against North Carolina and said he was out of shape. Some claimed his lack of production, with only three sacks last season, was because he was saving himself for a pro career.
Coach Steve Spurrier questioned his player’s commitment when Clowney didn’t suit up against Kentucky last October for what later turned out to be a strained muscle.
The scrutiny has intensified since Clowney announced after the Capital One Bowl in January he was giving up his final season of eligibility to go to the NFL.
This week ESPN analyst Merrill Hoge said Clowney, while gifted, was “atrocious” when it came to the game’s fundamentals. His ESPN colleague, Mel Kiper Jr., thinks Clowney has it all and should be the No. 1 pick.
“I don’t know how you can take anybody over Clowney,” Kiper said Wednesday. “He’s a once-in-every-20-year guy.”
Clowney tried to tune out the critics and concentrate on preparing for the NFL. His skills look as honed as ever after running a 4.53 second 40-yard dash time at the NFL combine in February, and putting on a show at South Carolina’s pro day earlier this month. Among those attending were Texans coach Bill O’Brien, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and general manager Rick Smith, all contemplating what to do with that top pick.
Is Clowney tired of effort questions?
“I’ve been tired of it, but you have to keep doing it,” he said.
Gamecocks defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said Clowney has things to work on, such as improving his play against the run. But “the NFL is a passing league and that’s what he is gifted at doing,” Ward said. “It’s not like he has to play run every down. He can chase the quarterback a lot and they can use him schematically to do that.”
Ward believes Clowney earned some of the inquiries coming his way.
“I think there is a lot of good and bad to some of the things that happened to JD,” he said. “I think some of the situations that happened, he put himself in.”
For Carroll, Clowney’s always taken in criticism and worked to disprove the harsh words.
“That’s what motivates him and that will always carry him to be better,” said Carroll, who’s remained close to Clowney and will be in New York for the draft. “He’ll succeed, just like he always had.”
Kiper didn’t see a lack of hustle, just a premier player double-teamed and chip-blocked by opponents to keep him from making plays.
“I don’t see any (other) defensive end out there the last 20 years that’s been blocked by three guys on a regular basis, and that’s because he’s a great player,” Kiper said.
Clowney is ready to silence critics as an NFL star. He’s draws strength from family and teammates when the questioning gets to be too much.
“They tell me, ‘Don’t worry about it,’” he said. “Just go out and keep working because it’s going to get better.”