It’s that time of year, when the Super Bowl is just a receding memory replaced by whispers and innuendo and misdirection about the college players who are about to the enter the NFL.
On the eve of the NFL scouting combine, the annual pageant in which players are evaluated every way possible and in ways fair and unfair, a question about one of the top players has been raised by his college coach. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who electrified the internet with a massive hit in a game in 2012 and had a less-memorable 2013, got a less than stellar recommendation for his work habits from South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier.
“He was okay,” Spurrier said in an NFL Network interview. “It wasn’t like Marcus Lattimore. You know, every player is a little different. His work habits are pretty good. They’re not quite like Lattimore, a Stephon Gilmore, Melvin Ingram, some of those guys, but when the ball is snapped he’s got something no one else has.”
Lattimore’s college career was marked by two horrific knee injuries and each time he fought back with drive and focus. Last year, he was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers, who liked him well enough to allow him to sit out the season as he works his way back.
At 6-foot-5, 274 pounds, Clowney is expected to be one of the first players taken, but the mere suggestion that he isn’t a hard worker — whatever that means — is going to draw scouts’ attention and it may not even be fair. Clowney was ready for the NFL after that 2012 season and then played 2013, trying above all other things to avoid catastrophic injury. The season was marked by a memorable dustup in which Spurrier said that “if he doesn’t want to play, he doesn’t have to play.” The two made up, to a point and last fall Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky pointed out that the compelling reasons why Clowney’s heart wasn’t in college ball.
Clowney played two years with Marcus Lattimore, who saw his first-round projection disappear with a season-ending injury. Lattimore went as a fourth-round compensatory pick to San Francisco, signing for four years and $2.46 million, just $300,000 of that guaranteed. Say Clowney goes third: he’d get a contract similar to that of 2013 third overall pick Dion Jordan, who’s getting $20 million over four years, with about $13 million guaranteed.
He needn’t even fear injury. A disappointing year could cost him tens of millions, as Matt Barkley found out when he chose to return for his senior season. Clowney’s already had a slow start to his 2013, but it’s not clear how much of that is due to illness and injury, offenses running away from his side, or just not being able to live up to the hype. It’s in Clowney’s best interest to cut things short, and it carries no drawback. USA Today spoke to two NFL executives who agree that as long as he’s in shape and healthy coming into the draft, “no one cares” if his junior season is a wash.
But they might care if his coach questions his dedication just before the combine.
Here’s one last look at the hit no one has forgotten: