INDIANAPOLIS – Jadeveon Clowney has charted his own zig-zag course to the top of most NFL draft projections.
He has even gotten some advice from
Clowney had a great 2012 season at South Carolina, punctuated by one of the all-time big hits in college football history in the Gamecocks' win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl. From there, it would be a charitable analysis to say that Clowney marched in place in 2013.
By most standards, it was a down season for Clowney. His production at defensive end raised questions about whether he was saving himself for the NFL and did not want to risk getting an injury that would lower his stock in the 2014 draft.
He declined from 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss in 2012 to three sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013.
It is legitimate for teams interested in drafting Clowney to ask if he had his eye on the draft – and the flip side is to ask whether it's understandable that any college prospect should have his eye on the NFL's greenbacks rather than giving it his all for his college colors.
By almost any rating, he will be one of first three players drafted in the first round on May 8.
Clowney arrived at the Combine in good spirits, even though a snag in travel plans delayed him. His first flight out of Columbia, S.C., was delayed, so he drove to Charlotte to catch another flight. It was delayed, too.
He was generally upbeat during his mass interview with the media, and his mood brightened further on the way to another media obligation when he talked about Taylor. The two were bookend defensive ends for the Gamecocks, but there was no doubt which one was the star.
Taylor was a fourth-round draft pick by the Lions who steadily raised his stock on the depth chart. His size and strength could make him something more than a rotational player. The two have talked about the transition to the NFL.
"He said it went great," Clowney said of Taylor's rookie year. "He just told me to go out, work hard, and everything will take care of itself."
Taylor has Clowney beat when it comes to colorful hairstyles. Clowney's long braids hang down to his shoulders. Taylor's hair is semi-long, but he colors it, sometimes in bright blue or a dark red.
"Just one color for me, man," Clowney said, laughing. "He's crazy."
South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier said in an interview that Clowney's work ethic could have been better last season. That didn't seem to upset Clowney, and he didn't fire back Saturday.
"I don't really have anything to say about it," Clowney said. "I believe I did work hard. You pull out any practice tape from last year. You'll see that. I'll tell anybody that.
"I'll always be working hard. No matter where I end up, I am going to work hard and give a team everything I've got."
The Texans are the obvious team that Clowney wants to convince. They have the first pick.
"That's one of my goals here, to go No. 1," he 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."
While the hit in the Outback Bowl may have defined Clowney's raw ability, it also came with a curse. On the play, Clowney broke through untouched from right defensive end and drilled Wolverines running back Vincent Smith.
The force of the collision sent Smith's helmet rolling backward 10 yards.
With great hits come great expectations. Clowney does not want to be a one-hit wonder. Talk of the hit, and questions about whether Clowney would sit out the 2013 season to save himself for the draft dogged him.
"Coming into the next season after the hit, people were talking about sitting out, all of this, all of that," Clowney said. "A lot of people expected stuff that was impossible, like 10 sacks a game, 30 tackles for loss.
"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.”