July 29, 2014

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NFL Draft 2014: Clowney is a physical phenom

A defensive end in college, Jadeveon Clowney appears to have all the tools to become a star in the NFL. It’s why some draft experts believe he will be the first overall selection in the upcoming NFL Draft. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)

A defensive end in college, Jadeveon Clowney appears to have all the tools to become a star in the NFL. It’s why some draft experts believe he will be the first overall selection in the upcoming NFL Draft. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)

South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is a physical freak. No one argues that, but a comparison made by Gamecocks defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward drives home the point.

“I guess the closest athletic guy I ever coached was Michael Vick,” Ward told The Chronicle-Telegram. “But they’re not the same stature. As a big guy, I’ve never coached anyone like him.”

There aren’t many like him. At 6-foot-5, 266 pounds, Clowney ran a 4.51-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine and added a 37½-inch vertical leap and a 10-4 broad jump.

“He can do anything,” Ward said. “Cat-quick. He runs like a defensive back. He’s got great agility, hops over people, hops around people. He does stuff and you think ‘wow.’

“I’ve been around people who had certain parts of what JD does. But no one has the overall ability. He’s a guy who comes along once every 20 years.”

Clowney is widely considered the most talented player in the NFL Draft and could be the No. 1 pick of the Houston Texans, or a team like Atlanta that trades into the top spot. But concerns about his effort and production as a junior in 2013 have followed him throughout the process. An anonymous NFC personnel executive referred to him as “spoiled and lazy” in an interview with NJ.com.

“I don’t entertain articles like that,” Ward said. “I know this kid. I can promise you this: He’ll show every bit of his talent in the NFL.”

“I believe I did work hard,” Clowney said at the combine. “You pull out any practice tape from last year, you’ll see that. I will always be working hard. No matter where I end up I am going to work hard and give a team everything I’ve got.”

Clowney was the No. 1 recruit in America coming out of high school in South Carolina and lived up to those expectations until last season. He was SEC Freshman of the Year, then finished sixth in the Heisman voting as a sophomore in 2012 with 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss.

He earned his second straight All-American honor as a junior, but his production slipped to three sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss and 40 tackles. He missed two games with injuries.

He finished his career with 47 tackles for loss and 24 sacks but was unable to set the Gamecocks records as he had hoped. He does hold the record with nine forced fumbles.

“Going into last season I had a lot of high expectations of myself,” Clowney said. “Things don’t always happen like you plan on. I wasn’t worried about my stats really. I just wanted to win.”

Ward’s voice got louder and gained intensity when discussing the lack of production.

“I’m sure he got frustrated this year,” he said. “The only team that single-blocked JD was Tennessee. He beat ‘em up. Everybody else double- and triple-teamed him and ran away. Of the first 65 runs, only nine went to him.”

But how does such a dominant physical presence muster only three sacks in 11 games?

“I think people knew what they were doing,” Ward said. “They knew they weren’t going to let Jadeveon destroy the offense. Put a tight end and back on his side, double-team. Two years ago they were blocking him one-on-one.”

Clowney said he likely would’ve left for the NFL after his sophomore season if that were an option. Forced to return to South Carolina, outsiders suggested he tried to avoid injury and protect his draft stock.

The expectations for his junior season were through the roof, especially after “The Hit” against Michigan in the 2013 Outback Bowl. Clowney split the blockers and drilled running back Vincent Smith so hard the ball came loose and his helmet flew backward about 5 yards.

“It was like a blur,” Ward said. “It sounded like two cars hitting each other. To me, the hit was great. What he did after the hit was the most amazing part. Reached down to pick up the ball with his left hand and was about to run.

“Dude is a freak.”

Clowney admitted it was hard to live up to the hype after the highlight that was played on a loop on ESPN.

“A lot of people expected stuff that was impossible, like 10 sacks a game, 30 tackles for loss,” he said. “I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I just went out there and played my game, hard and physical football like I played my last two years there.”

Clowney is unlikely to be on the board when the Browns pick at No. 4. If he is, they may be able to trade the selection to accrue more picks. Or they could take arguably the most talented player in the draft.

Coach Mike Pettine believes you can never have too many pass rushers, but the Browns used the No. 6 pick last year on outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo and spent $40.5 million in free agency on outside linebacker Paul Kruger. They combined for only 9.5 sacks last season, but general manager Ray Farmer might be reluctant to use more resources at the position.

If the Browns have Clowney ranked No. 1, the effort issues don’t seem like a deal-breaker. Farmer said Monday he has no problems with Clowney’s work ethic, and Pettine said at the owners meetings it’s the coaches’ job to elicit effort.

“I think if you’re strong and assertive as a coach that you can get that guy to be more focused and get him to be much more consistent,” he said. “So if you can take a Clowney and get him to play, to get him to get that motor humming and go hard every play, then you’ve got a guy that can absolutely dominate a game.”

Ward said Clowney is more grounded, mature and smarter than given credit, and he’ll respond to the tough coaching he’ll receive in the NFL.

“He listens and takes it personal when he doesn’t do well,” Ward said. “The negative talk he hears from the media, general public, coaches, he uses it as motivation.

“JD doesn’t want to disappoint people. He doesn’t want people to think bad about him. When he doesn’t want to be blocked, they’re not gonna block him.”

Clowney wants to be the No. 1 pick to follow his No. 1 billing out of high school. Then he plans to leave his mark on the NFL.

“I just want to be the best, one of the greatest of all time,” he said. “The NFL is just the next level, steppingstone in my way. Coming out of high school, I said I wanted to be one of the best in college and I think I proved that. Going to the NFL, I want to be one of the best in the NFL, go down in history as one of the best.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @scottpetrak.

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