Jadeveon Clowney tops annual non-traditional Heisman Watch
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Jadeveon Clowney stood on the sideline at Williams-Brice Stadium and looked back toward one end zone, where every member of South Carolina's offense ran extra wind sprints following a recent scrimmage. "Offensive boys down there working," Clowney said. "Look at them." Then he laughed.
The 6-foot-6, 275-pound defensive end laughed because he caused every one of those extra sprints. In that scrimmage, the first-team offense had faced the first-team defense for two series. Of those two series, the Gamecocks' offense -- which returns most of a group that helped South Carolina win 11 games last year -- ran two successful plays. In this case, "successful" doesn't mean "scored a touchdown" or even "made a first down." It means that the play was actually carried out as drawn in only the most rudimentary fashion. The Gamecocks' offense did that twice. What happened on all the other plays?
Clowney destroyed them.
On a few, he blew past 6-8, 341-pound left tackle Corey Robinson. When it became clear Robinson couldn't block Clowney one-on-one, coach Steve Spurrier left a back in the backfield to help Robinson. Clowney, being held by Robinson and the back, threw both players into quarterback Connor Shaw. Later, 6-9, 293-pound redshirt freshman Mason Zandi replaced Robinson with equally disastrous results.
Quarterbacks have the best chance to win the Heisman Trophy each year because they influence almost every play in which they participate. Tailbacks have the second-best chance because when they have the ball in their hands, their team's offensive fortunes are directly tied to their actions. For a full-time defensive player to win the Heisman in this era, he'll have to affect nearly every play for which he's on the field. The average viewer and the average Heisman Trophy voter must be able to understand his impact. Clowney might be the rare defensive player who can make that impact obvious to everyone.
Before Manti Te'o became a synonym for Catfish and a victim of Alabama running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, the Notre Dame linebacker opened a door. He garnered 321 first-place Heisman votes thanks to a season of timely tackles and nose-for-the-ball interceptions. Certainly, his second-place finish owed to the Notre Dame bump and the fact that certain old-fogey Heisman voters preferred a senior to redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel. But the fact that those fogies were willing to vote for a defender represented a sort of progress even while it reinforced some of the old stereotypes. Besides, LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu (2011) and Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (2009) had already primed the pump for defensive players to come.
In other words, 2013 may feature the perfect confluence of circumstances and player to change the way we vote for the Heisman. Clowney will try to improve on a season in which he finished tied for second in the nation in tackles for loss even though every defense schemed away from him or used extra blockers in an attempt to slow him. If he's healthy all season, he should hit double-digit sacks easily. He should force several fumbles. He should produce highlights that rival the hit that launched a thousand OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOHs on New Year's Day.
But will voters notice the other ways he influences a game? Will they understand the degree of difficulty when Clowney makes a play like the one Gamecocks defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward considers the most amazing thing he's ever seen Clowney do? That moment came in the fourth quarter of last year's Florida game. It was a Murphy's Law game for South Carolina from the moment Shaw fumbled on the first play from scrimmage. The Gators were firmly in command, but Clowney hadn't quit playing. We'll let Ward take it from here. "They ran the zone-read option," Ward said. "He took the dive. He made the quarterback pitch it. Then he ran the pitch down on the sideline. He played all three guys."
The Gators sent a receiver in motion down the line of scrimmage. A jet sweep handoff was quarterback Jeff Driskel's first option. Clowney, in a four-point stance on the right side of the defensive line, went unblocked by left tackle Xavier Nixon. Nixon's indifference told Clowney the play would go away from him, so he flowed toward the receiver, who continued toward Driskel. When Driskel pulled the ball away following the fake to the receiver and took off to the left, Clowney reversed direction and stalked Driskel. He grabbed Driskel, who pitched to tailback Mike Gillislee. Clowney let go of Driskel, chased down Gillislee -- who rushed for 1,152 yards in 2012 -- and dumped him for a five-yard loss. Essentially, Clowney did the jobs of three people on one play. No player should be able to do that. "He did it," Ward said. (A word of advice to offensive coaches: Don't read Clowney on an option. He really can tackle everyone if you don't attempt to block him.)
It remains to be seen whether voters will notice when Clowney, in the words of an SEC assistant last season, "wrecked every run play we ran in the second half." Suh did that in several games in 2009, but the majority of the public and the Heisman electorate didn't notice until the Big 12 championship game against Texas. By then, it was too late. The Heisman had been locked up by Alabama's Mark Ingram, who, while a great back, wasn't even the best player on his own team.
The good news for Clowney is that voters are already aware of him. This type of preseason hype has turned into a bad thing for quarterbacks because of coverage fatigue issues, but it probably is necessary for a player who only touches the ball after he has made a tailback look like a human Pez dispenser. That touching of the ball, by the way, remains the most amazing thing Spurrier has seen from Clowney. Not the hit on Michigan's Vincent Smith, but the way Clowney recovered Smith's fumble. "The incredible part of it was when he picked the football up like it was a baseball," Spurrier said. "It was in a pile of people, and he just snatched it."
If Clowney can snatch the Heisman this year, it may be time for me to retire this annual column. Since 2009, when I suggested that a certain Nebraska defensive tackle might be the best college football player in the United States, I've offered a few inside-the-tackle-box suggestions for an award that traditionally goes to the best quarterback or tailback on a double-digit win team. I've also touted the occasional defensive back. But even that first year, it seemed likely that the deepening coverage of football at all levels and growing X's- and-O's geekery would open the minds of more Heisman voters to the possibility that the best player in the country might not play one of three positions.
We may have reached the point where great defensive players are automatically considered for the Heisman. I hope so. The next step? We've got to elect a deserving offensive lineman.
Speaking of which, three offensive linemen made this list of players from the other 19 positions that Heisman voters should also be thinking about as the 2013 season kicks off.
• Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State: Who finished tied with Clowney for the second-most tackles nationally with 23.5 in 2012? It was Sutton, who was actually responsible for more lost yardage (130) than Clowney (113). Sutton played at an undersized 275 last season after Arizona State's strength staff helped him lose some bad weight, but he will start this season at about 300 pounds. If the added weight doesn't affect his quickness, Pac-12 offensive linemen will be in trouble.
• Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M: Manziel will try to become only the second two-time Heisman winner, but just as his first Heisman campaign was bolstered by left tackle Luke Joeckel, his second will be bolstered by Matthews. The son of NFL legend Bruce Matthews, Jake played right tackle the previous three seasons. The 6-5, 305-pound Matthews is every bit as athletic as Joeckel, who went No. 2 overall in the 2013 NFL draft.
• David Yankey, OG, Stanford: The 6-5, 313-pound Yankey has played four offensive line positions (and tight end) for the Cardinal. He is probably at his best at guard, where he can maul opposing defenders in a fashion similar to fellow Georgian Chance Warmack, the former Alabama guard who went No. 10 in the 2013 draft.
• Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan: That Clowney hit on Smith? Not Lewan's fault. Had the Wolverines tight end heard the call made by Lewan, who correctly noticed something amiss with Clowney's alignment (because of a blitz), Smith doesn't get splattered. In fact, Lewan had an excellent day against Clowney. And if Lewan can block Clowney, he can block anyone. That's why Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner said he's "99.9976 percent sure that I'm not going to get touched from that side."
• Jason Verrett, CB, TCU: This juco transfer's welcome to college football was rude. In the Horned Frogs' season opener against Baylor in 2011, future Heisman winner Robert Griffin III abused Verrett. But since, Verrett has developed into one of the best corners in the country. Even though quarterbacks don't try to challenge Verrett nearly as often anymore, his ball skills helped him rack up six interceptions and 16 pass breakups in 2012.
• Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State: Shazier is the kind of lightning-fast linebacker who can lead his team in tackles and tackles for loss. In fact, he came only nine tackles shy in 2012 of leading his entire conference in tackles and tackles for loss. Teammate Braxton Miller probably will get all the Heisman love, but Shazier is playing virtually the same role on the Buckeyes' defense.
• Jordan Jenkins, LB, Georgia: Georgia's Jarvis Jones was sadly given little consideration for the Heisman in 2012 despite being the nation's most feared defender behind Clowney. Maybe Jenkins, who will take Jones' place in the Bulldogs' defense, will have a better shot.
• Kyle Van Noy, LB, BYU: Van Noy is one of the most disruptive players in the country. In 2012, he racked up 22 tackles for loss to go along with two interceptions, two blocked kicks and a fumble recovery.
• Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA: It's terrifying to imagine how productive Barr might be if he had been playing defense his entire college career. After spending his first two years on offense, Barr moved to linebacker last year and led the Pac-12 with 13.5 sacks.