First, you notice the helmet.
When South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney tackled Michigan running back Vincent Smith during the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl, Clowney hit the ball carrier with such vehemence that Smiths helmet flew off like a spooked dove, flapping out of the picture to safety.
Every subsequent replay of the six-second sequence reveals some new detail. The one constant is the force of the contact. Clowneys backfield hit was everything good and bad about football; the jarring impacts that make some fans wince, while spurring a giddy fan to jump out of his recliner and spill his drink.
As important as first impressions are, you always want to leave a good taste in peoples mouths. With The Hit, Clowney did that, capping a season in which he checked off a grocery list of personal goals.
The sophomore from Rock Hill led the Gamecocks in sacks with 13, and tackles-for-loss with 23.5, setting new school single-season records in both, while being named SEC Defensive Player of the Year. He also won the Hendricks Award, given to the countrys best college defensive end, and garnered unanimous selection to every All-American first team, only the second Gamecock to ever do so.
Clowneys 4.5 sacks in USCs fourth straight win over Clemson also set a new school mark for most in a game, while providing the uninitiated with a Cliffs Notes version of why NFL scouts cant stop drooling over a 19-year-old.
Any college football fan who didnt know about Clowney before The Hit certainly does now. The Outback Bowl was watched by 7.6 million viewers, giving Clowney a national audience. Going against Michigans 6-foot-8, 310-pound surefire NFL prospect, left tackle Taylor Lewan, Clowney had a relatively quiet game. But with less than nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, the officiating crew awarded the Wolverines a first down even though a measurement indicated Michigan had fallen short.
Clowney was ticked.
I said I gotta go make something happen, because they just made me mad I was just trying to take over the game really. The opportunity came right there on the next play.
Clowney made The Hit, and the momentum crashed right through the Wolverines to Gamecocks, which came back and won the game.
While The Hit, which earned a two-page photo spread in Sports Illustrated this week, fully displayed Clowneys innate blessings, it was also a textbook play, according to South Carolina defensive line coach Brad Lawing.
At the onset, it appears Wolverine tight end Mike Kwiatkowski whiffed on Clowney, who was stunting to the inside a play called corner fire. The missed block, plus Clowneys hyper-quick first step, had him in the backfield in no time, so fast in fact that he blew past the unsuspecting fullback and almost caught Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner before he could hand the ball to Smith. Unfortunately for Smith, the handoff reached his gut just in time for the impact.
Oh, the impact.
Clowney planted his right leg and drove his right shoulder into Smiths chest right under his chin, just as Lawing teaches.
Any time you near-leg, near-shoulder a guy, said Lawing, thats the maximum amount of power that you hit a person with.
Textbook stick, said Clowney, laughing. We go through that all the time in practice. He (Lawing) called me the next day, talking about, Clowney, I told you my drills work.
Smiths helmet shot off and alarmingly flew back a good 15 feet before bouncing out of the picture.
The ball was also jarred loose. Clowney instinctively pushed it into the ground - learned from a Lawing fumble recovery drill - snatching it with his paw before being tripped up.
Fortunately, Smith did not appear to be injured. But in the span of a three-step drop, the contest had swung the Gamecocks way.
That was no surprise to Bobby Carroll, the current York Comprehensive High coach who coached Clowney at South Pointe.
That was vintage Jadeveon Clowney, he said.
Relaxing in Rock Hill
On a gray Tuesday, Clowney is relaxing at his Rock Hill home.
The college football season is over, the lights are off, the shades are half drawn and the only noise comes from a yipping puppy, Diesel, and the TV at low volume.
Its as different a scene as possible from the play that thrust Clowney further into the national spotlight. When Clowney is in Rock Hill, respite is what he seeks.
Coming back home is relaxing because Clowney can be around a lot of people I grew up with, he said. Its like football dont exist; just sit around and have fun and laugh.
In the small, one-story house near downtown Rock Hill, Clowney can find sanctuary from most of the noise and attention that being No. 7 for the Gamecocks now elicits. That includes the media thats hounded him since he was a senior in high school, occasionally writing illuminating stories, but often misquoting or misconstruing facts.
I think people do that to all types of icons in the public, Carroll said. They always look for something bad in somebody. Ive known Jadeveon Clowney for six years now and I cant say anything bad about him. I really cant.
Clowney is affable and personable when he does talk to reporters. But thats not often, outside of interviews arranged by South Carolinas sports information department.
Hes been a media target since the circus that embroiled his recruitment in 2010, when as the top-rated high school football recruit in the country, he waited two weeks after National Signing Day to announce his college decision.Seemingly every media outlet in the country honed in on him. His life and his familys changed forever.
Clowney and his mother, Josenna, changed cell phone numbers multiple times during the two weeks. Today, he has a simple strategy for when hes not in the mood to talk.
I dont answer, he said, just as the house phone rang.
New media frenzy
After his sophomore season and The Hit, another round of media frenzy is coming this fall. At least Clowney will have the school to filter and sift through the countless interview requests.
We got to do a good job sorting out, shielding things from him, said Lawing. Allow him to be a ball player and allow him to be a student.
Two phones sit on the coffee table during a 30-minute interview. They buzz and chirp incessantly.
Hes such a star, especially in South Carolina, that he cant even go to Food Lion without constantly being stopped.
Everywhere I go someones gonna say something about something I did, or me playing for South Carolina. Everywhere I go, theres a spotlight.
Besides winning the Hendricks Award, which sits conspicuously in the corner of his mothers living room, Clowney was also a nominee and finalist for the Bednarik, Nagurski and Lombardi Awards, and finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Most lists of early favorites for the 2013 Heisman Trophy includes Clowney, along with Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. Does Clowney believe he could win the award as a defensive end?
I really dont know, he said. Its gonna be very hard for a defensive guy to win the Heisman once them quarterbacks just come out there throwing that ball and having a breakout season. But if I was to win, thatd be pretty big. I dont think its ever been done in history, just a guy on defense.
Of the 12 Heisman winners since 2000, 11 have been quarterbacks. Charles Woodson is the only defensive player to have won the Heisman, and he did so in 1997 largely because he returned kicks and played receiver too. The playing field is tilted against Clowney, something he realizes.
If they give them to me, Ill take them and deserve them, he said. But Im just striving to be better and help my team. I want to win that big one, like Alabama won last night.
Its the morning after the Crimson Tide rolled Notre Dame in the BCS Championship. Championships for South Carolina are on Clowneys mind, not individual awards.
I believe we really have a chance to do something great, something thats never been done, Clowney said. Its big to be a part of that, but I still want something bigger than that. I want to be a part of the team that won it all.
Just watch about 30 seconds of a highlight video of Clowneys high school senior year and it becomes evident how unfair it was for him to still be playing with kids the same age. At times this season, he again looked like a man among boys.
Because he was a true sophomore in 2012, Clowney cant go pro yet, but talk of the NFL is still intertwined with his name. Many agree that Clowney is the frontrunner to be the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, and that he could have played in the league straight out of high school.
When Clowney makes the NFL leap, Lawing, along with several others, will be due some credit for hewing a rough diamond into a sparkling gem.
That guy pushes all my buttons, said Clowney about his defensive line coach. Some days none of the d-line guys feel like practicing, and he dont really care. Regardless, hes gonna get you going.
From day one, Lawing singled out Clowney continuously for criticism, and it wasnt until this season that the sophomore began to understand why.
He just kept pushing me to make me work, he said. My sophomore season, I already knew what to expect from him. I wanted to be part of something, we wanted to win. You want to win, you gotta work.
Lawing, an old-school, 31-year veteran, has habitually told Clowney that he knows hell be a first round pick. But does he want to be the first pick?
He just needs to develop more consistency, said Lawing. And thats why you come back for your third year.
This year was striving to be better than I was last year, Clowney explained. And I really achieved that this year. Next year, just work on my fundamentals and just get ready for whatever I get after that.
At last, an NFL allusion. Clowney purposely avoids getting too far ahead, but he admitted to checking on the NFLs worst teams periodically. Its difficult to ignore what everyone seems to know.
Whats gonna happen is gonna happen, he says, adding that its not even certain hell leave for the NFL after his junior season. Im just really focused on what Im doing now; thats going to school and playing for South Carolina.
Following the Outback Bowl, Clowney was asked by a gaggle of reporters how he reacted after hitting Smith.
I laughed, he said.
He reiterated that Tuesday: I was trying to score a touchdown, but I was laughing.
The answer immediately following the game seemed to shock the reporters slightly. But the likely No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, whos not even 20 years old yet, has it all in perspective.
I know its a game, Clowney said. I just have fun with it, and just enjoy whats coming with it right now. Anybodyd love to be where Im at right now.
Its why he deals with the endless onslaught of attention, the glare of the spotlight, the never-ending phone calls. Its part of the deal.
Clowneys got it all in perspective, Carroll said. In my 30 years of coaching football, Ive never seen a player of that magnitude Clowneys just the total package.
Bret McCormick - 803-329-4032 - Twitter @BretJust1T