The worst thing that has ever happened to Jadeveon Clowney's football reputation was The Hit.
It was written about everywhere, including here. It was embedded everywhere, including here several times. It was replayed 45 days in a row, on "SportsCenter." It was described as the perfect hit, although its legality was then inexplicably debated. It vaulted him further toward preseason Heisman frontrunner status. By the end of the offseason, two things were certain: We will never talk about one play from the Outback Bowl this much ever again, and Clowney's junior season was set up for failure in the eyes of both casual football fans and contrarian NFL draft analysts who like nothing more than to build someone up only to tear him down.
Never before had a defensive end been the focal point of the nationally televised opening game of the football season, or any game, and thus never before had so many people made snap judgments of a defensive end on a per-play basis. The mythical stature of Clowney became so great that I don't know what anyone expected. He cannot make a direct impact on the ball every play, or even most plays, because he is a defensive end, and defensive ends don't do that, regardless of how many times he's labeled the greatest defensive NFL prospect in years, or how many days in a row "SportsCenter" airs that one amazing hit. Short of him leaping over the line of scrimmage to choke-slam a quarterback while carrying an offensive tackle on his back, somebody somewhere was going to be disappointed.
The Hit wasn't even his most noteworthy display of football technique or skill, either; it was more of an awe-inspiring display of physicality that made Clowney look like Lawrence Taylor in a pee wee game. Michigan was slow to seal the gap, and Clowney shot through the opening with his ungodly quickness off the line of scrimmage. Combine that with the opening Michigan gave him, and you end up with Vincent Smith buried in the grass and a loose football palmed in Clowney's hand as if it were the size of an egg.
That was the lasting image of him we took into the offseason, the type of play that built him into a superhuman myth from whom we unfairly anticipate similar highlights every time he steps onto the field.
Through two games in the 2013 season, against North Carolina and Georgia, Clowney has recorded six total tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and three hurries (the definition of hurries being notoriously variable from school to school). Through two games in the 2012 season, against Vanderbilt and East Carolina, Clowney recorded six tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and two hurries.
Those statistical starts are similar, but our perception and attitude have changed, and most importantly, individual defensive line statistics do not come close to telling a complete story anyway. Defensive players can impact plays without making tackles and no matter how good a player like Clowney is, there are ways to attempt to slow him down or diminish his impact.
"We have done a lot in the past and I think we have a plan as well," Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said at his press conference on Monday, in advance of Saturday's game against the Gamecocks. "We'd like to add a tight end to that side to chip. You'd like to have a running back in position to help as well. You'd like to slide to him as much as possible, but they're smart as well. They aren't going to leave him in the same spot all the time.
"I think more than anything we just have to be aware of him. We do that every week though, you try and take their strength away and eliminate them … He is going to have an impact in the game, but what you can't afford him to do is have a huge impact on the game."
Against the good offenses of the Tar Heels (who ranked 14th in yards per play last season) and the Bulldogs (who led the nation in yards per play), that's exactly what has happened, although the Gamecocks used Clowney differently against Georgia, keeping him anchored to the right end position. North Carolina pushed the tempo, ran away from him and got the ball out of Bryn Renner's hand quickly, but it still scored only 10 points -- its fewest since November 2011. Georgia was much more successful, scoring 41 points, but then again an offense with a good, experienced QB in Aaron Murray and arguably the best running back in the nation in Todd Gurley is going to succeed against anyone -- especially a South Carolina team with a weakness at linebacker.
To make matters worse, yes, on top of his occasional mental mistakes, like overpursuing, Clowney has gotten winded and taken plays off, perhaps because of heat, perhaps because of a stomach bug, perhaps because of a foot issue, perhaps because of laziness, perhaps because of all of the above. We've see him fail, when we expected nothing less than greatness, and therefore any mistakes are going to be magnified. It goes with the territory, but it's also unfair.
While he is a once-in-a-generation NFL prospect, he is still just that: a prospect. There is no such thing as a perfect one. Clowney is a human playing a game, a rather large one with 99th-percentitle athleticism and skill, yes, but a human nonetheless. To expect perfection every snap from a 20-year-old, no matter how athletically gifted, is to expect the unattainable.
Clowney cannot cover wide receivers running so wide open that "you could've thrown a grenade and the only person who would have died was me," on a play in which he beat his blocker to the inside and flushed the quarterback out of the pocket. He cannot make tackles for loss on running plays specifically designed to flow away from him, which is happening most of the time. He cannot bat down passes that are thrown away from him a split second after the snap, or get to the quarterback on those plays. He cannot prevent defensive coaches from fighting with each other on the sideline. He cannot go against his coach's apparent wishes and move himself around the formation, which would seem to be one obvious way to try to combat offensive adjustments. The performance of the South Carolina defense, and the entire team, cannot be tied to Clowney alone.
Criticism is fair, of course. Questions about his stamina and his effort are legitimate, especially if they continue to be issues. But mistakes and fatigue don't make him a failure or a bust in two games, and he should be evaluated like any other football player is evaluated, meaning his entire football future should not be re-evaluated after every snap.
While The Hit made him a bigger star than ever, it also set him up for inevitable perceived failure. Somewhere in the middle is the actual football player: young enough to make mistakes like anyone else but talented enough to alter an offense's game plan like no one else. And the latter is what still makes him a better NFL prospect than anyone in college football.
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