Today’s print edition story addressed the reality that South Carolina sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney will face for the next year and half – that he has a boatload of NFL money waiting for him in the spring of 2014.
Over the next year, a lot of people are going to talk a lot about whether Clowney can become the first exclusively defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. If he does win, it would certainly be a momentous milestone for Clowney and college football, and would probably contribute to more endorsement money for him once he reaches the NFL.
If he doesn’t win, well, that would mean absolutely nothing for his potential as a professional football player. The notion that the Heisman goes to the best player in college football is considered stale by many who follow the sport. To be sure, it has gone to the unquestioned best player several times. Other times, it went to the best player on the best team.
It is extremely difficult to compare football players of different positions and determine the single best player, so you really have to take awards like this with a grain of salt.
Moreover, nobody really thinks the Heisman is an indicator of NFL success. Since 2000, it has gone to Eric Crouch, Jason White and Troy Smith. Nothing against those guys, but they did zip in the NFL.
Since Bo Jackson and Vinny Testaverde won the Heisman in 1985 and 1986 and were picked first in the draft the following spring, exactly three Heisman winners have gone first overall – Carson Palmer (2002 Heisman winner), Sam Bradford (2008) and Cam Newton (2010).
The prevailing thought is that Clowney has a bright NFL future and that he will be the top pick in the 2014 draft. Many believe he would also have that honor in 2013 if he was eligible. Whether Heisman voters determine that he is “the best player in college football” next season, that’s obviously another story.
But for what it’s worth – and it’s certainly worth something – we have seen some changes recently in the Heisman voting dynamics. While Clowney finished sixth this year and got four first-place votes (including one from USC coach Steve Spurrier), Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o finished second.
Two other exclusively defensive players have finished second: Pittsburgh defense end Hugh Green, who was the runner-up to USC running back George Rogers in 1980, and Iowa defensive tackle Alex Karras, who lost to Texas A&M halfback John David Crow in 1957.
Also, remember that in 2011, LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu finished fifth, and in 2009, Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh finished third. Clowney is the 18th exclusively defensive player to finish in the top six. Just one exclusively defensive player has done it twice – some guy named Dick Butkus, who finished sixth and third in 1963 and 1964.
Of course, cornerback Charles Woodson did win the award in 1997, but he returned punts and played some wide receiver that season. Clowney is a tremendous athlete, but he is not going to take handoffs in 2013.
But the voters giving recognition to Mathieu, Suh and Te’o during the past four years certainly gives hope to Clowney in 2013. They account for three of the 14 all-time top five finishes by defensive players, for an award whose history dates to 1935.
As you think about changing voter trends, also recall that Tim Tebow became the first sophomore to win the Heisman in 2007 and Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to win this year. Obviously, both of those guys are quarterbacks, and since 2000, quarterbacks have won 11 of the 13 Heismans, if you include running back Reggie Bush, who had his award vacated.
There are other national player of the year awards, most notably the Maxwell and the Walter Camp. Te’o won both of those this year. The last defensive Maxwell winner was Green in 1980. The last defensive Walter Camp was Woodson in 1997, though we have already established his multiple roles. Green is the only other defensive guy to win the Walter Camp. The Maxwell has been around since 1937, the Walter Camp since 1967.
So voters for all long-standing national awards seem more open to varied selections – as opposed to just a junior or senior running back or quarterback – than they historically have been. This all bodes well for Clowney.
Naturally, if you ask him, he will say that he thinks a defensive player can win the Heisman and that if he continues to play well, he has a good shot. What else is the guy going to say?
Let’s make it clear that Clowney was answering a question about Heisman stuff, and not standing on a soapbox and declaring, unprompted, that he believes he can win. That said, he is clearly confident in his chances. He knows how talented he is.
But again, the Heisman will not be definitive for him. For a guy like Jason White? Sure, it was. Nobody figured White would have a pro career of any substance, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that, or with taking pride in winning one of the most famous trophies in sports.
While Clowney would no doubt be disappointed if he has another masterful year and doesn’t win the Heisman, he would surely rather experience a lengthy, successful and profitable tenure in the NFL. For any player, that would trump any award.
Still, Clowney said (again, when asked about this), “I’m going to try to get there (to the Heisman ceremony in New York). That’s my next thing to get to, New York. Next season, I’m going to come in and work harder than I did this season and try to get there.”
So after a season in which he became the second USC player ever, along with Rogers in 1980, to be a unanimous All-American, what does he think it will take for him to win the Heisman?
“Probably instead of me just leading the country in sacks and tackles for loss, probably more forced fumbles,” he said. “I’m going to go for more forced fumbles next year. And just more big plays – interceptions. Everything I did in high school.”
He had five forced fumbles last season but has just two this season.
Now, some more notes wrapping up what Clowney and USC defensive line coach Brad Lawing had to say this week …
** Clowney said he does not plan to take out an insurance policy before next season, but this is barely worth noting because there is a long time between now and next season for those plans to change. Presumably, someone is going to speak with Clowney about the advantages of having an insurance policy.
“I don’t think about getting injured,” Clowney said. “Stuff happens. You could get injured just walking somewhere, fall off a curb. I’m not taking (an insurance policy) out on myself. I haven’t gotten hurt yet. I don’t plan on it. Knock on wood. I don’t want to jinx myself.”
** Health-wise, he said his right foot, which he injured Sept. 29 at Kentucky, is “getting better” and that doctors believe he will not need offseason surgery. It was originally thought that he might need the surgery.
Clowney said the foot “should heal on its own” after the season if he “takes some time off and lets it heal.”
He has played through the injury, but the coaches and trainers decided to rest him against Wofford. That’s the only game he has missed.
** Clowney’s physical skills helped him have such a good year. There’s no doubt about that. But the best football players are as cerebral as they are violent, and Clowney’s increased understanding of the game contributed to him taking that next step this season.
With one game left in 2012 and all of 2013 still to go, Clowney has 21 career sacks and 33½ career tackles for loss. He should break USC’s career sacks record next season. Eric Norwood had 29 in four seasons. The tackles for loss mark will be tougher. Norwood had 54½.
Norwood is tied for seventh in SEC history in career sacks. Clowney isn’t going to catch the SEC’s all-time leader, Derrick Thomas of Alabama, who had 52 in four seasons. The SEC media guide does not have any records listed for tackles for loss in a season or career, and the only sacks record listed is for a career.
** How does Clowney think he took that next step this season?
“Using my hands better, play every play like it’s my last,” he said. “I know I can go harder than I usually do most of the time. Fitting off of other guys really helped me this year because if they mess up, I know how to make them right. I pretty much can read the offense better than I usually do.
“That’s pretty much what made me better this year, being smarter on the field and reading the line and the quarterback and running back, where they line up on the field. I became smarter this year than I was last year.”
He could play harder because he was smarter.
“Because I knew the game, I knew what was going on,” he said. “I wasn’t bringing my speed down trying to figure out the game, because I knew it. So I played much faster than I did last year. The more I adapt to the game, the faster my speed gets.”
** Clowney being smarter let Lawing do more with him.
“I hope I see the same thing (next year) or better than what we saw this year,” Lawing said. “He’s made tremendous strides from his freshman year to this year. He’s learned how to use his hands and get people off him. His intensity level has picked up tremendously. His knowledge of the game has really increased, which has allowed me to do more things with him.
“The Clemson game, we started out the very first third down, I thought they were going to turn the protection to him, so I set him to the protection ID, which is what I do every week. I had him standing up and we twisted him around and got pressure on the quarterback. Then we knew where they were going to set the protection.
“He stood up inside. He stood up outside with Devin Taylor. He played defensive end with his hand on the ground. He played tackle with his hand on the ground. We were able to twist him around and get him away from some things. Because his knowledge of the game has increased, I’m able to do that with him. Last year, I couldn’t do that with him. I did that with Melvin (Ingram), Norwood, Cliff Matthews, as they learn football, and he’s learned football now.”
** So did Clowney exceed Lawing’s expectations for him this season?
“No, I have very high expectations for him,” Lawing said.
Did he at least meet them?
“No,” Lawing said. “I expect him to be the first guy (picked in the draft). I don’t know if he would be the first guy right now. That’s what I expect him to be one day. We always preach to our players: There is no finish line.”
Lawing believes Clowney took it as a challenge when Lawing talked openly about how little Clowney knew last season, and how Lawing needed to have other players tell Clowney what to do before the snap.
“He’s a very prideful kid,” Lawing said. “I’ve been on his butt since he’s been here. He’s taken coaching very well. We butted heads a little bit when he was a freshman and earlier this year, but I told him when we recruited him, ‘If you don’t want to be coached, don’t come here because I’m going to coach you hard.’ As a coach, you can’t be afraid to coach a great player. Some coaches out there are afraid to coach a great player. They just kind of let them do what they want to do, and I’m not patting myself on the back when I say that, but that’s my philosophy: I’m not afraid to coach a great player. And I think he’s great.”
Why did Clowney butt heads with Lawing?
“Sometimes, when you’re 18, 19 years old, you think you know everything,” Lawing said. “I think there’s an old saying out there: It’s what you learn after you know it all that really counts. That’s an old John Wooden thing, I think.”
** Lawing believes that even though Clowney is widely projected to be the first overall pick in 2013, if he were eligible, he does need a third year of college.
“Sure he does,” Lawing said. “He needs three years to mature because you step into an NFL locker room at age 19 or 20, you’re probably not ready. You’re talking about 25-, 26-year-old men, maybe older, that have played this game, because this game is so physical. Sometimes, you can get maybe intimidated.
“It’s stuff I talked to Melvin (about). Melvin came home I guess a month or so ago when they had an open date. I said, ‘Tell me the difference (between college the NFL).’ And he said, ‘Coach, a lot of times, it’s not hard work. Sometimes, it’s being buddies with a coach.’ I said, ‘That’s not right.’ He said, ‘I know it’s not, but sometimes that’s the way it is.’
“When you’re young, you learn it’s about hard work and sometimes you get into a locker room and you’ve got different dynamics. And I’ve never been a pro coach so I’m probably speaking out of turn when I say that, but I just know what I’ve talked to the players I’ve coached when they come back (about).
“You need three years of football. Baseball is different and basketball because they’re not contact sports. Football is the only sport in the world where the object is to get the man that’s got the ball and not get the ball. That’s what makes it different. It’s physical and you’ve got to mature as a person to play this game. I think three years is fair.”
** Lawing still remembers how he first learned about Clowney, when USC was recruiting cornerback Stephon Gilmore and linebacker/safety DeVonte Holloman out of South Pointe High in Rock Hill. Gilmore and Holloman were seniors at the time, Clowney a sophomore.
“I’ve got this sophomore you need to look at,” South Pointe coach Bobby Carroll told Lawing during a visit to the school, as Lawing recalled.
Lawing then watched Clowney on tape for a little while at the school.
“They always call (the players) down to the office so you can eyeball them,” Lawing said. “I looked at him and I said, ‘Well, he looks the part.’ I said, ‘Tell him he’s got a scholarship to South Carolina.’”
And that’s how it all started for Clowney and USC – Lawing offering him a scholarship on the same day he first saw the kid’s tape and imposing physical presence. Sometimes, you just know.