Twelve tackles, three for loss, including two sacks. The “biggest joke” in college football. Entitled. Selfish. Quitter.
We have heard and read every single one of these statements, and more, regarding South Carolina junior DE Jadeveon Clowney. But how fair has the national media been with the edge rusher?
Let’s start with another statement: NFL evaluators do not care about Clowney’s fluctuating public perception. They know he was an outstanding prospect prior to “the hit,” and know he remains a rare talent despite many who cover the sport tearing down his 2013 season.
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Scouting departments will come to their own conclusions regarding Clowney’s effort, character, background, injury history and talent. We really know very little regarding relevant and important information that plays into team’s personnel decisions. The entire notion of “draft stock fluctuating” is seldom true.
I understand this is an opinion-based business. That people come to read certain observations from people they respect or find entertaining. However, I have never felt comfortable discussing a prospect's character if we have never met. Who am I to judge someone’s personality, if I have never actually encountered it?
This can lead to tricky situations during the evaluation process. My approach has been to list prior off-field issues/concerns, along with reported medical history, as pieces of information with on-field performance remaining the focus.
With that clear, how has Clowney fared on the field? In short, I still consider him a rare prospect, joining the likes of Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh, and Andrew Luck with that label.
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If you believe the recent national narrative, Clowney is loafing and failing to make an impact on the field. Some advice: do not listen to that box score based evaluation.
Do I think Clowney is playing every defensive snap? Or that he always gives full effort to chase down runs from the backside? Of course not.
In the games he has suited up for, Clowney has played in 213 of South Carolina’s 272 defensive snaps this season (thanks to John Pollard from STATS Inc. for that number). Roughly 78.3 percent. Compare that to 4-3 defensive ends (what Clowney is currently playing and his easiest projection) in the NFL this season: Jason Pierre-Paul (76.3), Demarcus Ware (72.3), and Julius Peppers (78.2). Are these players “loafing” if seen on the sideline by camera crews? That seemed to be the instant conclusion during the first game of the season against North Carolina, suggesting Clowney’s impact on a game instantly dropped after spending a few snaps on the sideline.
Clowney could improve his stamina in the hopes of being less fatigued, but do not expect him to be Star Lotulelei, who was on the field for 91.2 percent of Utah’s defensive snaps last season. That is ridiculous, and even he was accused of possessing a poor motor at times. In comparison, the defensive lineman taken just before Lotulelei, Sheldon Richardson, played 72.3 percent of Missouri’s defensive snaps last season. The next defensive lineman, Florida’s Sharrif Floyd, posted a figure of 66.4 percent during his final season.
Pressure Is Paramount
Production for a collegiate defensive lineman can be tricky. Yes, Clowney registered 23.5 tackles for loss, including 13 sacks last season, but starting from the first snap this season it was obvious teams understood South Carolina lost a good amount of talent to the NFL and have struggled to replace it.
Opponents have consistently worked away from Clowney, running plays to the opposite side of the field, sending multiple blockers his way, using upfield momentum against him, or throwing quick passes on straight drop backs. It is only one of four contests, but here is a sample from Scouts Inc.’s Kevin Weidl on South Carolina’s game against Georgia:
People love to cite production. It is easy. But production fails to account for impact far too often. After watching every single one of Clowney’s snaps in succession, his impact on games has been overlooked. Clowney’s get off is outrageous, and these screenshots show how lonely he must feel in the opponents’ backfield:
Some of these plays Clowney finished. Others he did not, but plays were rushed, altered, or reverted due to the disruption. Pressure does not just relate to the passing game. Rex Ryan defines the term as “applying the proper strategy for the situation in order to maximize your defensive force," adding it is not based on an alignment of the defense, but a mentality. Clowney has it, but is not receiving help from his peers.
The junior edge rusher predominantly lines up as a right defensive end as a five (outside shade of the tackle), seven (outside shade of the tight end), or nine technique (wide alignment as if there were two tight ends). Clowney occasionally sees time as at left defensive end, or as a three or one technique on the inside, but those are infrequent. He loves to utilize an arm over swim, a la J.J. Watt, which creates separation. Once in open space, Clowney eats up ground thanks to tremendous closing speed.
Here is a possible problem. If someone were to ask if I would rather have a consistent edge rush or consistent interior push, I would choose the latter every single time. Obviously this is a hypothetical situation and nearly impossible to generate, but it is notable regarding Clowney’s perception. Big name defensive ends and stand up rushers have become among the most popular figures every Sunday, but interior disruption impacts opponents more.
Teams can work away from him in a variety of ways, as long as they block and win in the other sections of the field. Runs, quick passes and screens to the boundary in college could be considered more difficult and more cramped, but South Carolina has seen them over and over again thanks to Clowney’s presence.
Where To Go From Here
Clowney’s on-field impact is being undersold. I will defend that all season. There have been noticeable dips in his effectiveness, for instance the edge rusher seemed to be on his game more in the season opener against UNC and the big matchup with Georgia than in the other two contests. His explosion was evident in every contest, but did tend to waver towards the end of each half.
It would be a lie if I said I did not raise an eyebrow after Clowney sat out Saturday’s contest against Kentucky, and subsequent postgame comments from head coach Steve Spurrier. Would I be surprised if Clowney opts for surgery to repair the bone spurs, that will require a postseason procedure, before the school’s final game? No. This is a player who witnessed Marcus Lattimore suffer multiple serious knee injuries.
I am not a doctor, I do not believe I should be commenting on Clowney’s injuries. The same goes for his personality, character, etc. since I have never met him. I will stick to focusing on what the eye in the sky shows, that Jadeveon Clowney is making an impact between the white lines, even if his tendency to disrupt the opposition’s efforts does not show up on the box score. He remains a rare prospect on the field.