Is Teddy Bridgewater the best quarterback in the nation? Sure, but he’s not a once-in-a-generation talent. Is Jadeveon Clowney the best defender in the nation? That’s a Clowney question, bro. Of course he is.
So where does Clowney rank on a list featuring the top defensive prospects of the 10, 15 years? Julius Peppers and Jevon Kearse are obvious comparisons, but those are actually modest projections. Duplicating the careers of Reggie White or Bruce Smith are more apt NFL aspirations. Clowney is the Usain Bolt of defensive ends. He moves like a wide receiver in the body of a 4-3 NFL defensive end and hits like a UPS truck.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Clowney still has a year left to wreak havoc on college campuses. In an odd twist of fate, quarterback guru Steve Spurrier’s legacy at South Carolina may end up being a quarterback killa. The Grand Canyon isn’t as wide as the natural talent disparity between Clowney and the second-best defender lurking behind him in college football. It’s been that way since he was hounded by college recruiters as a high school phenom at South Pointe High School. (Shoutout to Clemson, which finished second in the Clowney and Robert Nkemdiche recruiting wars).
As a senior Clowney recorded 162 tackles and 29 sacks. Three years later, he’s still plowing through, darting around and leaping over offensive lineman like he did against high school comp. Sacking quarterbacks is his trademark, but it’s not all he’s known for. No doubt, you’ve seen the clip of him putting Michigan running back Vincent Smith through the guillotine in the Capital One Bowl Game. The ironic part of his collegiate career highlight to-date is that, according to NFL scouts, his development as a run defender remains his only glaring weakness as a prospect. Try telling that to the gaping hole in Smith’s ribcage.
Unfortunately, it occurred too late to vault him into last season’s Heisman conversation. That’s the one obstacle even Clowney may not be capable of knocking off its hinges. We know he’ll be in the discussion for this season’s stiff-arm for much of the year, but if previous history is any indication, some 500-yard passing game by a quarterback against a non-AQ defense will make him a Heisman afterthought. So what would Clowney have to do to bust down the Heisman doors in December?
Offensive skill position players get more opportunities to fill their highlight packages, but defensive players have to accumulate astronomical numbers to garner serious consideration. Anyone who saw Clowney absolutely mentally and physically abuse UGA’s offensive tackle John Theus knows that sacks don’t tell the whole story.
Even Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o couldn’t hoist the Heisman with an inspirational story, an undefeated team prepping for the BCS Title Game and a collection of season-altering or game-saving plays in his pocket.
Charles Woodson is the only defensive specialist to win the Heisman Trophy, but his return ability is what lifted him over the top for voters. Before Clowney starts counting his NFL green, eclipsing Pittsburgh defensive end Hugh Green’s 1980 season should be his goal. Twenty-three years ago, Green was a physical freak built like a 6´2, 222-pound safety with 4.5 speed. Green finished second that season to South Carolina running back George Rogers in Heisman voting. By contrast, Clowney measures in at 6´6, 274 pounds and clocked a 4.54 40 this spring.
Last season, he recorded 54 tackles, finished third in FBS with 13 sacks en route to becoming the first sophomore to win the Hendricks Award for top defensive end in the nation and finished sixth in the Heisman voting. Using Green’s ’80 season as a benchmark, 18 sacks, 70 tackles and an SEC title may be his best longshot. Or he could shut the whole vote down by toppling Derrick Thomas’ single season record with 27 sacks.
“This guy, to catch the eye of America, would have to have at least 17 or 18 sacks, five or six interceptions returned for touchdowns — something totally incredible,” Green told Athlon Sports recently. “He’d have to sack the quarterback and intercept him at the same time.”
It sounds like a Herculean task, but for a man of Clowney’s ability, we’ll downgrade it to Arnold Schwarzeneggean. To his advantage, Clowney plays in the most dominant conference in college football history. It’s also the most nationally covered.
Manziel burst onto the scene after a blistering start out of the gates, but he vaulted to the top spot because of the 345 total yards he gained by air and ground and two touchdowns he scored in a nationally televised drubbing of No. 1-ranked Alabama. Clowney will have to do his thing under the brightest lights. It’s too bad that Heisman voters didn’t witness him bury Clemson’s prolific touchdown throwzini Tahj Boyd alive with a 4.5 sack performance last November.
South Carolina’s instability at quarterback will make the Gamecocks reliant on a shutdown defense, and uncertainty on offense is going to put the onus on Spurrier’s defense to navigate SC’s path through the SEC. If the Ol’ Ball Coach can finally get South Carolina over the SEC East hump, a date with Alabama could be Clowney’s Heisman audition. If there was ever a player to smash the glass ceiling for D-lineman, Clowney is that dude. Hopefully, he’s rented a tux.