South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney went out to eat Tuesday night with first-year Houston coach Bill O’Brien and other decision-makers with the Texans, who own the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft in May.
The conversation, as it generally does with Clowney, eventually turned to his allegedly questionable work habits, which, the argument goes, could offset his unquestioned physical skills.
“They asked me the same questions everybody’s been asking me about – my work ethic,” Clowney recalled Wednesday. “I still told them the same thing: I think I work just as hard as anybody. You put me in a group of guys, I’m going to try to outwork them, also. Just keep on pushing, on to the draft.”
Clowney took another step toward being a likely top-three pick – he’s not expected to fall below Jacksonville at No. 3 – with a solid showing Wednesday at the Gamecocks’ pro day.
Clowney finished what he left unfinished during the February NFL scouting combine, namely the position drills he skipped in Indianapolis.
Clowney, who grew up in Rock Hill and was the nation’s No. 1 prospect at South Pointe High, wanted to show scouts he can move side to side as well as he runs in a straight line after racing through the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds in Indy.
Clowney demonstrated a willing spirit by going through linebacker drills, although that seemed to reinforce the thinking that the 6-foot-5, 266-pounder is best suited with his hand on the ground as an edge pass-rusher.
With representatives from 30 of the 32 teams – and more than 120 credential media members – watching under sunny skies at Williams-Brice Stadium, Clowney said he hoped to accomplish several things.
“Show them I move well lateral, not only one way. They know I’ve got speed. Show them how quick I can turn my hips, show them I can drop in coverage,” he said. “And my cardio – show them I’ve been working out and staying in shape. I did pretty good.”
Clowney, who has been training at Velocity Sports Performance in Charlotte, decided not to run the 40 again. He also sat out the pro bench press, despite the pedestrian 21 reps he did at 225 pounds at the combine.
But he passed the eye test as he chugged through cone drills and chased a scout pretending to be a quarterback. Clowney had one complaint about the setup.
“I wish we had pads on, hitting somebody,” he said.
The issue for NFL teams remains figuring out whether Clowney has enough of the qualities that can’t be measured.
Clowney was criticized for nursing injuries and taking plays off – and in one case, an entire game – during his junior season at South Carolina. The player praised for his freakish athletic ability and speed off the edge managed just three sacks after setting a school record with 13 in 2012.
But O’Brien brushed off a question about Clowney’s drive Wednesday, saying it wasn’t an issue.
“He’s obviously a very productive player, had a really good college career. Fun guy to watch on film,” O’Brien said. “I wouldn’t say there’s anything that changed my mind as far as what type of player he is.”
Former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb, on hand to cover the proceedings for FOX Sports 1, also dismissed the criticism of Clowney.
“That’s the excuse people bring up. What do you want him to do: Knock down walls and carry kids to school to show that he’s getting stronger?” McNabb said. “This young man worked extremely hard. You can’t be in a college program in which you’re top 15, top 10 every year, and not have great work (habits).”
Clowney said he has visits scheduled with St. Louis, which picks second, and Atlanta (sixth), while O’Brien said the Texans plan to bring Clowney to Houston.
Clowney knows what questions are coming.
“Work ethic is not a problem,” Clowney said. “I come out here every Saturday and play my hardest out there on the field. Y’all might say, ‘He looks tired.’ But you look around me, I’m not the only one that’s ever tired.”
But Clowney may be the only player capable of becoming, as McNabb put it, “the most dominant player in the league.”
Panthers free agent guard Travelle Wharton said Clowney is going to be a handful for offensive tackles.
“That’s going to be tough for a lot of tackles because he’s got the raw talent, things you can’t coach. And he’s only going to get better as he adapts to the game,” Wharton said. “That’s going to help. If he stays healthy, he can be a real big-time player in this league.”