Entering his junior campaign at South Carolina, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was expected to have one of the greatest individual seasons in college football history. The next Lawrence Taylor perhaps. And yet, five games into the season, he has underperformed on the field and sat out even after doctors cleared him to play, blaming overly sore ribs.
Instead of potentially becoming the first-ever defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy, Clowney has disrespected the game, disrespected his team, and -- perhaps most importantly -- disrespected himself.
Over the summer, the hype surrounding Clowney grew at an incredible rate, thanks in large part to the devastating hit he made during the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day. For those who don't know, Clowney was also the top-rated high school player in the United States three years ago. He was -- and still is -- a can't-miss prospect and future NFL star who went with a local program.
But it's also true that he has mishandled what has surely been a challenging situation created by such pressure. To be fair, he is double- or even triple-teamed on every snap. Still, his 12 tackles and two sacks this season have been unimpressive. In the opener against North Carolina, he looked out of shape and slow off the ball, as if he was entitled to success and expected it to come easily.
Football can be a cruel game and Clowney doesn't have to look far to understand that reality. Last year, his teammate and fellow superstar Marcus Lattimore tore up his knee for the second consecutive season. The injury happened during a rather innocuous play, reaffirming just how fleeting one's football stardom can be. In a matter of seconds, he went from being a potential first-round NFL draft choice with more than $9 million in guaranteed money to a fourth-rounder with a base salary of $405,000.
Clowney -- should he remain healthy -- could still become the first overall pick in April's draft. What exactly does that mean? Consider that last year's top pick, left tackle Eric Fisher, inked a four-year deal guaranteeing him more than $21 million. Don't forget about the speculation that Clowney would simply sit out the season and avoid the risk of injury altogether. He drew praise for not doing that and rightfully so. Yet he has not played with the same ferocity and reckless abandon we expect.
His coach, Steve Spurrier, didn't even realize that Clowney wasn't playing against Kentucky. "It was just we didn't know he wasn't playing until right before the game. That is always a little frustrating. Usually the trainer or doctor comes, and tells you this guy is out, and that did not happen last night," Spurrier told ESPN.
Of course, Clowney can still salvage his junior season, but he has to get himself back on the field and back into the same mindset that made him such a can't-miss prospect. NFL general managers and coaches salivate over elite pass-rushers like him. In fact, he could probably still be the top pick in the draft even if he failed to register another sack all year. But, at this point, his legacy is far bigger than that and now is the time for Clowney to start playing equal to his robust talent.
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