For a player expected to wow scouts with his combination of size and freakish athletic ability, the toughest part of the combine for South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has been getting there.
Clowney, the Rock Hill native who hopes to be the first player taken in the May draft, said he was scheduled to fly out of Columbia at 6:45 a.m. on Friday, but that flight was delayed two hours. He drove to Charlotte for an afternoon flight, and after another delay, finally made it to Indy around 8 p.m.
Now that he’s here, Clowney wants to make a big impression.
“That’s one of my goals here, to go No. 1,” he said Saturday. “I came out of high school as the No. 1 player so I want to come out of here as the No. 1 guy.”
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The Houston Texans have the first pick and, with the arrival of offensive-minded head coach Bill O’Brien, might lean toward taking Texas native Johnny Manziel or another quarterback.
But scouts view Clowney as a rare physical talent who will be a pass-rushing force the moment he enters the league, much like Julius Peppers or Jevon Kearse, the original “Freak.”
“I just want to be the best, one of the greatest of all time,” Clowney said. “The NFL is just the next level, stepping stone in my way.”
No one doubts Clowney’s physical abilities. He measured 6’5” and weighed 266 pounds Saturday, and hopes to clock a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash when he runs Monday.
He reportedly ran a 4.5 at 270 pounds at South Carolina’s winter workouts last year. But red flags have surfaced about Clowney’s motivation and work habits, including one raised by his own coach.
“He was OK. It wasn’t like Marcus Lattimore. You know, every player is a little different,” Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier told the NFL Network last week. “His work habits are pretty good. They’re not quite like Lattimore, maybe Stephon Gilmore, Melvin Ingram, some of those guys. But when the ball is snapped he’s got something no one else has.”
Clowney was asked about Spurrier’s comments when he met with the media Saturday.
“I believe I did work hard. You pull out any practice tape from last year, you’ll see that,” Clowney said. “That’s what I told them. 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.”
But that didn’t appear to be the case at times during his junior season, when critics thought he took plays off and sat out games with minor injuries to preserve his draft status.
Clowney likely would have been the No. 1 pick last year if he’d been eligible, and said Saturday he would have entered the draft if he could have.
“I probably would have, but right now that’s over with,” he said. “I had to stay a third year, and I did what I had to do, took care of my business with my team, helped them win games.”
The Gamecocks went 11-2, beat Wisconsin in the Citrus Bowl and finished No. 4 in the AP poll, the highest postseason ranking in Gamecock history.
But Clowney’s numbers were significantly lower. After averaging 10.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss his first two seasons, he had just three sacks and 11.5 TFLs last season.
Clowney blamed the drop-off in the schemes opponents employed against him – double-team blocks, quick passes and running plays away from his side of the field.
But some scouts and opponents saw something else. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd said when he studied film of the Gamecocks, he saw Clowney playing hard only part of the time.
“When he wants to go, he can go with the best of them. I feel like he can go play right now,” Boyd said. “But for him, it’s just that motor. Is it on or is it off? I think if he plays with a consistent motor, he's one of the best guys out there.”
Clowney told South Carolina coaches minutes before a game against Kentucky he was sitting out with sore ribs. He also missed the Coastal Carolina game with bone spurs in his right foot that he says now is fine and won’t require surgery.
“I wasn’t worried about draft stock or nothing. That will take care of itself,” Clowney said. “I was out there trying to make plays for my team no matter what it took.”
Clowney said he’s loved football since he began playing as a child – a passion he shares with his mother, Josenna, who has worked at the Frito-Lay plant in Charlotte since she was 18. She raised Clowney while his father, David Morgan, served nearly 12 years in prison for second-degree burglary.
“I’ve been playing this game since I was 5 years old, a long time – and my mom, I play for her also,” Clowney said. “She loves the game just as much as me. I go out there and have fun with it. She loves to see me play and I love to play the game, so I am going to continue to play this game.”