The best player in college football, and maybe the best college defensive player in at least a decade, doesn’t seem to think about falling or failing, about cause and effect, because so often he is the singular cause to so many astonishing effects. He decides on something; his 6-foot-6, 274-pound body makes it happen; and therefore it just is.
Defensive line teammate Kelcy Quarles said Clowney rolled out of bed one day and, without warming up, lifted 315 pounds to his shoulders. During the Gamecocks’ first practice of the season, Clowney and a teammate turned over a nearly 500-pound blocking sled. A few weeks earlier, he was clocked in an unofficial 40-yard dash at 4.46 seconds (For context, Robert Griffin III, the Washington Redskins quarterback who competed in the 2008 Olympic trials, ran the 40 in 4.41 seconds last year at the NFL combine). Clowney sleeps little, eats a lot and does the unthinkable.
“I don’t even get tired,” he said.
These aren’t tall tales if they’re true, but Clowney is college football’s Paul Bunyan anyway.
“A freak,” Quarles said. “He just got hit by that thunderbolt from God.”
As a sophomore in 2012, Clowney had 13 sacks, and his explosive hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith during the Outback Bowl was shown hundreds of times on highlight shows. Now entering his third season of college football — and almost certainly his last — he is seen as a Heisman Trophy hopeful, a possible No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NFL draft and the catalyst to sixth-ranked South Carolina’s best chance ever at the school’s first Southeastern Conference championship.
“Anything is possible with him, man,” South Carolina wide receiver Bruce Ellington said.
It’s not about the Heisman
Clowney’s sophomore season was so impressive that, for a while, it was believable he could sit out his junior season and wait a year to become eligible for the NFL draft. It might even have been smart. Last year, he watched as teammate Marcus Lattimore, a running back with similar NFL ability, suffered a season-ending knee injury for the second consecutive year.
Clowney, 20, makes no secret of his desires to play as soon as possible in the NFL, but he said he never considered leaving college early — at least this early. There’s too much left to do, and besides, the superhuman don’t consider long-term injury. They think of upside.
“It’s not about that Heisman to me,” Clowney said. “Heisman, that’s individual. But if we go out there and win all our games and the SEC championship and I get the number one pick, that’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
This is a program, mind you, that hasn’t won a conference title since 1969, when it topped the ACC. A team that went 1-21 combined in 1998 and ’99. And a team that had never won 11 games in a season until it did so each of the past two years, when Clowney and several other players who seem destined for the NFL signed to play for Coach Steve Spurrier in Columbia.