It was early in his high school football career in Rock Hill, S.C., and one of his coaches suggested he switch from tailback to defensive end.
“I was about to quit. I liked running the football,” Clowney said earlier this month at South Carolina’s media day. “Actually, it was the best thing ever for me. I’m happy about it.”
Clowney, who makes his season debut tonight against North Carolina, should be happy with the move.
The Gamecocks’ All-American is expected to be the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL Draft, and he could become the first pure defensive lineman to win the Heisman Trophy.
As a sophomore in 2012, Clowney helped the Gamecocks to their second consecutive 11-win season. He was named a first-team All-American by nine different groups, and the Southeastern Conference coaches named him the league’s defensive player of the year.
He also won the Hendricks Award as the nation’s top defensive end, and he was a finalist for the Nagurski, Lombardi and Bednarik awards.
Yet the 6-foot-6, 274-pounder is still asked whether he wants to play offense.
“Nah,” Clowney said. “I told (coach Steve Spurrier) if he wanted me to I could play receiver or tight end.”
Then he flashes his signature grin, and proceeds to tell about his exploits in high school.
“I played every position in high school,” he said. “Every position you could name. Offensive line. Everything else I did. The halfback pass, I threw it deep as I could. I told the boy to run deep.”
All of the accolades Clowney received in 2012 came before a play that became so famous it is now simply referred to as “The Hit.”
With South Carolina locked in a battle with Michigan in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day, the Gamecocks appeared to have stopped Michigan on fourth down midway through the fourth quarter. Spurrier challenged the call, but the officials ruled otherwise and Michigan lined up for a first-down play from its 41.
South Carolina was furious.
The Michigan quarterback handed the ball to running back Vincent Smith, who was simultaneously met by an unblocked Clowney.
Let South Carolina radio play-by-play announcer Todd Ellis’ call that day tell it from here.
“Clowney just burst through and ripped the helmet off the tailback and just took it away,” Ellis said. “Don’t do us like that. Clowney just took it over. … He made the hit, and then jumped on the football. Boom! … That may be the best single individual defensive play in a crucial situation that I’ve ever seen.”
Connor Shaw threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Ace Sanders on the next play, and the Gamecocks needed some late magic to pull out a 33-28 win over the Wolverines.
All anyone could talk about, however, was Clowney’s tackle, forced fumble and recovery, and dislodging of Smith all rolled into one.
“The Hit” went viral via Twitter and YouTube. It was shown over and over on ESPN, and eventually won an ESPY for Best Play of the Year.
Seven months later, Clowney was asked whether he felt sorry for the Michigan running back.
“Uh, no sir,” he laughed. “I don’t. It doesn’t matter who it would have been, I’m just happy to make a big play and put us in a position to win the game.”
The play also catapulted Clowney into the Heisman Trophy conversation. After finishing sixth in the voting last year, behind freshman winner Johnny Manziel, Clowney is on the short list of Heisman favorites going into this season.
But he dismisses such talk.
“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 for a big season for myself.”
Center of attention
Since “The Hit,” Clowney has lived in a fish-bowl atmosphere. Everything he does is magnified.
So when Spurrier declared at the team’s media day that he was tired of talking about his star, Clowney was asked if he was tired of the attention.
“I hate it,” said a smiling Clowney, slowing down his speech to draw out the words. “I tell the coach every day I – don’t know why it came on me. He said you’re a good player, just keep playing the way you’ve been playing. He said you’re going to have to deal with it the rest of your life if you keep playing that way. I said I can get used to it.”
At SEC Media Days in July, Clowney made headlines by saying Georgia’s Aaron Murray and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd were scared of him.
On the way home, he then took a picture of Spurrier when they stopped for fast food and posted it to his Instagram account.
“I said ‘Coach, my mom wants a picture of you.’ He just turned around and smiled real quick, and I snapped it,” Clowney said. “I said I’m going to post it. I told the guys when I posted it it was going to make it to ESPN’s SportsCenter. Two days later it was up there.”
Clowney also posted a photo of Jay-Z, the rapper and sports agent. That caused a buzz about possible NCAA violations, but South Carolina cleared its star player of any wrongdoing.
“I was just excited about hearing from him. I never talked to the guy at all,” Clowney said.
“People called me about him but I was like, that’s tight. Everybody knows Jay-Z. I was excited he wanted me to be a part of his group. I didn’t know it was going to be a big deal like that.”
With those issues behind him, Clowney is looking forward to his final season in Columbia.
Even with teams double-teaming him on a regular basis, Clowney owns the school records for tackles for loss (23.5) and sacks (13) in a single season. With another stellar season, he could surpass the career records in both of those categories.
After a scrimmage this summer, Spurrier complained about his team’s inability to stop him.
“We act like we didn’t even try to block Clowney,” Spurrier said. “Maybe we’re afraid to block him, I don’t know. Hopefully, he’s that good but I’ve seen other people block him.”
Clowney has pushed himself to improve.
“I had the worst technique. All I had was speed,” he said. “That’s all they kept talking about. I used to come off the ball and throw my shoulder at the offensive lineman. Now I come off the ball using my hands.
“I was really running on speed and talent. The older guys told me you can’t do what you did in high school. I’ve played much better.”
Coming off consecutive 11-win seasons, and recent domination of rivals Georgia and Clemson, expectations are at an all-time high for No. 6 South Carolina. But nothing short of an SEC Championship – the first in school history – will do for Clowney.
When asked whether he had any individual goals, he had a quick reply. He is no longer the player who bristled when asked to switch from offense to defense several years ago.
“No, man. We’ve got a team goal,” Clowney said. “It’s to win. It’s all we’re looking for is to win. It’s a team goal.”