Central Florida's Justin McCray tries to block South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Orlando, Fla., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013. (John Raoux/AP)

South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was expected to be among the most talked-about players in college football this season. Mission accomplished. The preseason Heisman Trophy candidate has drawn a lot of attention, not for what he’s done on the field, but for not getting on the field at all.

Clowney is a junior, and this is his final season at South Carolina; he’ll enter the NFL draft, where he is projected as a top pick. But Clowney has just 12 tackles and two sacks this season, and last Saturday, he walked out of the tunnel for the Kentucky game without pads. He then told the coaching staff he wouldn’t be playing because of bruised ribs.

So is Clowney a selfish college star saving himself for the pros at the expense of his college team? Or is Clowney a smart college star saving himself for the pros at the expense of his college team? Or is Clowney an injured college star who isn’t much of a communicator?

His rib injury seemed to come as news to the Ol’ Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier, who after the Gamecocks’ 35-28 victory said, “If he wants to play, we will welcome him to come play for the team if he wants.” He added: “But if he doesn’t want to play, he doesn’t have to play. Simple as that.”

Nothing is as simple as that, and Spurrier knows it. By Tuesday, Spurrier had changed his tune and tone, backing Clowney’s injury claim and defending his all-American against accusations he was putting an NFL payday ahead of his school. Spurrier took an interesting tack in his defense.

“I just want to clear the air that Jadeveon — all those No. 7 jerseys and all the money he has made for our school — he has been a tremendous, important player,” Spurrier said. “Every Gamecock, including me, the coaches and everybody else, we need to be appreciative that he chose South Carolina. He could have gone anywhere in the country. He is a big reason we have had those seasons. He is trying to do all he can to get ready to play.

“We all handled it poorly, all of us. . . . This was a situation that he had something that was really bothering him, and hopefully it will be taken care of real soon.

“He is hurt. If he doesn’t play another down, every Gamecock should be thankful he is here.”

If Clowney is hurt — and everyone seems to agree, now, that he is; he is questionable to play against Arkansas on Saturday — Spurrier did the right thing in backing off his criticism. And not every coach would acknowledge the amount of money a player makes for his university. Clowney may be looking forward to a big NFL contract, but he’s also been a revenue stream for South Carolina. The Gamecocks were 11-2 the past two seasons — “the greatest seasons we’ve had in the history of this school,” Spurrier said — and are 4-1 and ranked 14th in the country this year. Spurrier is smart to be thankful for that and brave to acknowledge that while Clowney is getting a lot from South Carolina, South Carolina is getting a lot from Clowney.

This is the dilemma in which college football finds itself. Is it a provider of scholarships for student-athletes to play games for the entertainment of alumni, fans and television audiences? Or is it a minor league system for the NFL?

Not for every player, of course, but for players such as Clowney, it’s more the latter. If he didn’t have to remain in school for three years, Clowney would have been gone. And South Carolina would have been the poorer for his absence — literally.

On the other hand, for Gamecocks who are not like Clowney, who don’t have an NFL paycheck to look forward to, this must be frustrating. One assumes not just any player can take himself out of the lineup at game time. But with the money now tied to both college and pro football, the playing field, figuratively speaking, is not level. Then again, life’s playing field is often not level.




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Oddly, Clowney doesn’t seem to have hurt his NFL stock by sitting out. He might not be the No. 1 pick in April, but that will be because Jacksonville needs a quarterback, not because the Jags are worried about his fragility.

Clowney also hasn’t cost the Gamecocks a victory. And he has the support of his very blunt coach.

Clowney has pretty much removed himself from the Heisman discussion, but that was probably not a realistic expectation for a defensive player anyway. So his decision may have cost him some fans, but not much else. If he stays healthy, that’s a choice he can live with.

For more from Tracee Hamilton visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.