NFL players like to say, “The eye in the sky does not lie,” meaning that a player’s worth is revealed on film. On Thursday, ESPN’s cameras took the measure of Jadeveon Clowney, who stands to be the first player taken in the next draft, and found him not just wanting but loafing.
Replays showed the South Carolina defensive end doing little more than standing up on certain snaps. Live shots caught him jogging to the sideline and seating himself, conspicuously fatigued. Said analyst Jesse Palmer: “The issue I have is him taking plays off and not always showing great effort. That to me is inexcusable.”
Thus did the conversation regarding the nation’s best defender skitter off in a direction unimagined. Before Thursday, we all lined up to laud Clowney, venturing that he might become the first defensive lineman to win the Heisman Trophy. Georgia coach Mark Richt, against whose team Clowney wrought epic havoc in October, told the Bulldog Club of Atlanta: “He might be the very best player at any level.”
Some pundits suggested Clowney should protect his financial future by skipping the collegiate season and saving himself for the draft. Watching Thursday’s tepid showing, it was possible to wonder if he was seeking to have it both ways, to play without really playing.
And to think: Clowney became the second-biggest name in college football — after Johnny Manziel, who has issues of his own — by authoring a play so outrageous it went viral within 30 seconds on New Year’s Day. (If you haven’t seen it, simply Google “Clowney hit.”)
Outback Bowl against Michigan, fourth quarter, 8:22 remaining, Gamecocks down a point: Vincent Smith takes a handoff; Clowney, having split two linemen, meets the ball carrier 4 yards upfield and delivers a hurtling blow that divests the Wolverine of helmet and ball, the latter of which Clowney reaches over and lifts, almost daintily, with his left hand.
In one fell swoop, Clowney went from being an All-American to a Brand Name, which not many college defenders ever become. Not quite eight months later, the cameras that lovingly preserved what he did in two seconds against Michigan were on hand to record him doing not very much — three tackles, three hurries, no sacks — over an entire game against North Carolina.
Afterward Clowney conceded that he got tired, saying that he had had a stomach virus and ate a pregame meal of a banana and grapes. He also told reporters: “When that ball’s snapped, I’m coming off the ball.”
But, at least in Game 1 of 2013, he hadn’t always. The eyes in the sky told us so. Granted, it had been hot (95 degrees) in Columbia, S.C., but even his coach didn’t offer much of a defense.
Said the famously forthright Steve Spurrier, speaking via teleconference Sunday: “We all watched what happened out there, and obviously Jadeveon was not up to par — I’m not going to give him any excuses. Give that North Carolina offensive tackle pretty good credit. He did a good job blocking, and their quarterback was pretty nifty. But I think Jadeveon learned that the camera is on him every play.”
Week 2 brings a much bigger game. If South Carolina defeats Georgia on Saturday, it should win the SEC East and could well play for the national championship. Given that the Bulldogs had trouble blocking Clemson, what fury might the great Clowney unleash? Still, how great can a guy be if he can’t catch his breath?
Said Spurrier: “Obviously he was pooped (against North Carolina), but I think there were some reasons he was pooped other than being in not-great shape. I think he’s in pretty good shape.”
Clowney’s display against Georgia last season didn’t yield a Michigan Moment — those come once a career — but for sustained excellence it marked a zenith. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay calls it “one of the most dominant individual defensive performances I’ve seen in recent years.”
Asked what he wants from Clowney on Saturday, Spurrier said: “Just play like he’s capable. That’s all we ever look for. We know he can rush the passer a little bit better maybe than he did the other night, so hopefully that’ll happen … and chase down some ball carriers, just play more like he’s capable.”
Someone wondered if the coach spoke to Clowney about the need to play harder. “Whatever I told him after the game will remain between him and me,” said Spurrier, who then offered this: “I think he’ll play a lot better this next game.”
The cameras will be ready. For Jadeveon Clowney, they always are.