After an offseason of questions about whether the defensive end should play college ball this fall and risk being injured, he let his actions show how he felt Tuesday. He participated in drills, working on his technique in preparation for the Gamecocks’ 2013 season.
Several NFL analysts say the 6-foot-6, 256-pound sophomore — who did not speak with reporters after his workout — would be the first pick in this year’s draft if he were eligible to turn pro.
“He understands this is a big year for coming for him performance-wise, academically and athletically,” Gamecocks defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. “He’s doing well the last two or three weeks handling the situation.”
Clowney’s been the face of college football since his hit on Michigan’s Vincent Smith — ESPN’s version on YouTube.com has gotten over 3.2 million viewings — sent the runner’s helmet flying and laid the player out flat before Clowney reached out with one hand to retrieve the ball. That’s led plenty of debate whether Clowney should gamble his high pro draft position with another season of college ball.
Clowney never thought about that scenario, Ward said.
The player and his parents met with Ward soon after South Carolina’s 33-28 Outback Bowl victory simply to talk about what Clowney needed to do to improve.
“It wasn’t an issue with them. It wasn’t an issue with us,” Ward said. “That’s why he’s out here practicing.”
Clowney looked at home on the practice field. Ward and head coach Steve Spurrier stopped by to talk and wish him well during pre-workout stretches before Clowney broke out for position drills led by first-year defensive line coach Deke Adams. Adams made Clowney go through the tackling dummies a second time when the player didn’t do it crisply enough.
“Good, good. Much better,” Adams told him.
Clowney hurried off the field across from Williams-Brice Stadium when the session was over.
“We’ve talked to him a little bit,” Spurrier said. “He’s an exuberant young man and he’s handled it pretty well. We’ll work with him.”
Clowney’s lived in a spotlight since high school as the country’s No. 1 college prospect coming out of South Pointe High School. He delayed his college choice nearly two weeks after signing day in 2011, picking South Carolina over Alabama and Clemson.
Clowney was the Southeastern Conference’s freshman of the year that fall and took his game to another level this season, recording 4½ sacks in the Gamecocks 27-17 win over rival Clemson last November.
Count on Clowney again being one of South Carolina’s most talked-about players. He said last fall he hoped to contend for the Heisman Trophy, college football’s top prize, before finishing up his time with the Gamecocks. To do that, he’ll need a sharp focus, something teammate Kaiwan Lewis says he’s shown through all the talk about Clowney’s future.
“We were with him nearly every single day,” said Lewis, a linebacker. “It was a funny situation because it didn’t really affect him.”
Ward, the second-year defensive coordinator, said if Clowney had given up on this season, it would have made a bad impression with pro teams.
“There’s not an NFL owner who would tell Clowney to sit out the season,” Ward said. “One of the last guys to challenge the league was (Ohio State tailback) Maurice Clarett. Where is he?”
Clowney tied for third nationally in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 13 sacks and was second in the country with 23½ tackles for loss. Ward said he’ll work his All-American as hard as possible since Clowney needs to improve in giving consistent effort.
“If I get him to play 100 percent every time, he might be unstoppable,” Ward said. “If he wants to be the number one player picked in the draft, he’s got to play hard. He understands that.”