Jadeveon Clowney doesn't doubt himself, even if others do
INDIANAPOLIS - Best defensive player of his generation, or supremely talented player who might never achieve his potential?
It's the biggest question surrounding Jadeveon Clowney, the South Carolina defensive end who dominated his sport like few others but still left some people wondering if he could have been even better.
Such as South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who wondered aloud during an interview last week about whether Clowney's work habits matched his freakish talent.
"He was OK," Spurrier said of Clowney on NFL Network. "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 suffered two serious knee injuries in college, came back from both and is now with the 49ers. Gilmore and Ingram, both of whom are in the NFL, played for Spurrier.
Clowney, whose sack total dipped in 2013 after a spectacular 2012 season, disputed Spurrier's tepid evaluation when the 6-5, 274-pound defensive end met with the media Saturday at the NFL Scouting Combine.
"I believe I did work hard," he said. "You pull out any practice tape from last year, you'll see that. I'll tell everybody that. I will always be working hard. No matter where I end up, I am going to work hard and give a team everything I've got."
Clowney said it won't take long before any remaining skeptics are convinced about just how good he'll be at the next level.
"I believe that once I get to the NFL, [the dial is] going to be up on my career," he said. "I just want to be the best, one of the greatest of all time. The NFL is just the next level, stepping stone in my way.
"Coming out of high school, I said I wanted to be one of the best in college, and I think I proved that," he said. "Going to the NFL, I want to be one of the best in the NFL, go down in history as one of the best, so I have another stepping stone in my way and hopefully take care of business and accomplish that in the NFL."
Clowney will be one of the top players taken in this year's draft, maybe the top player. The Texans own the top pick and have a need at quarterback, but they might not be able to pass up taking Clowney. It wouldn't be the first time Houston chose defense over offense; in 2006, they opted for defensive end Mario Williams over Heisman Trophy-winning running back Reggie Bush.
"That's one of my goals here, to go No. 1," Clowney said. "I came out of high school as the No. 1 player so I want to come out of here as the No. 1 guy."
Clowney's talents are not in dispute. He is a tenacious pass rusher who has been mentioned in the same breath as the NFL's greatest of all time. But it will take plenty of production from Clowney in the coming years to match Lawrence Taylor.
He had 13 sacks in 2012, along with a hit for the ages that catapulted him into the stratosphere of college players. His tackle of Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the 2013 Outback Bowl not only forced a fumble but sent Smith's helmet flying.
But he had only three sacks in 2013, a dip that has some scouts concerned. Not Clowney, though.
"Coming into the next season after 'The Hit' . . . a lot of people expected stuff that was impossible, like 10 sacks a game, 30 tackles for loss," he said. "I knew that wasn't going to happen, of course, but a lot of people expected it. I just went out there and played my game, hard and physical football like I played my last two years there."
Clowney helped the Gamecocks to an 11-2 record and a win over Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl. And now it's on to the next level, where Clowney hopes to lend his talents to a future Super Bowl champion.
Just in case anyone forgets what it means to have a great defensive player, Clowney offers a reminder of Seattle's Super Bowl win over the Broncos on Feb. 2.
"Defense won that game, shut them down, shut them out," he said. "It takes defense to win championships, hands down. You had a great quarterback in Peyton Manning, hats off to him also, but defense wins the Super Bowl."