Now that Loganville (Ga.) Grayson defensive end Robert Nkemdiche has
I'm not going to say "they are different players and have different body types, so it's hard to say." I also don't want to say the next great player is better than the last great player, just for shock value. People want to know the true and honest answer without sensationalism, politics or hidden agenda. And based on pure film evaluation, Clowney clearly has the edge. But why? And how big of an edge is it?
The first thing it comes down to is length. Clowney is a longer prospect, with longer arms, longer legs and a longer torso, which allows him to cover a bit more ground and do a better job in space. At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds coming out of his junior year, Clowney was not quite as big or strong as Nkemdiche is at the same stage, but Clowney was able to better track things down to the outside and make plays in the backfield because of his long arms. Watch the film and you'll see times when Clowney makes a play with his hands and fingertips, even when being blocked or apparently out of range. That extra length made him extra special.
While Nkemdiche has the edge in strength and is a bit more versatile than Clowney in some respects (he could play defensive tackle while Clowney would struggle inside), Clowney is better in pursuit and much quicker off the snap.
Nkemdiche can better handle double-teams and is stronger at the point of attack, but Clowney reads the snap count like he's under center and can split double teams with such ease, it's a thing of beauty.
Both players do a good job of backside pursuit and getting down the line of scrimmage to make plays from behind, but Clowney reaches top speed quicker and closes much stronger. If you like animal analogies, think of a cheetah pursuing a gazelle. When the cheetah gets within a certain range, it's over. That's Clowney.
Both players are athletic enough to play standup linebacker in college if they wanted to, and both could come off the edge standing up as a 7-technique and be a menace in the opposing backfield. But both are better with their hand on the ground.
Clowney has a better outside pass rush, while Nkemdiche is better at getting into the body of opponents and rocking them back. Nkemdiche plays over a body more often and is inside at times, while Clowney likes to line out wide. But even when shoulder-to-shoulder with a tackle, Clowney is quicker to the outside.
Both are strong with their technique, mixing up moves, using misdirection and getting free of blockers. Clowney has a great arm-over move while Nkemdiche extends his arms well and rides linemen into the backfield. But when it comes to footwork, Clowney has the clear edge, setting up opponents with quick feet and showing amazing balance and agility.
But while length, quickness off the snap, strength, versatility, technique and footwork are all important, the wow factor that separates the two is pure speed.
Clowney runs like a wide receiver, and that, combined with his incredible motor and ability to change direction without losing a step, allows him to make plays all over the field. Nkemdiche lacks that same suddenness and quickness off the snap as well as in pursuit, and doesn't have quite the same "freak" quality.
The bottom line is that both are great players at the same stage and both are No. 1 at their position and overall. But Clowney is that rare defensive end who comes along once every 20 years or so and Nkemdiche is not.
Clowney is the best high school football player I have seen in more than a decade scouting prospects, and in 2011 there was zero doubt in my mind that he would be No. 1 from bell to bell. Nkemdiche is No. 1 in 2013 for now, but there are a few other candidates who could supplant him as we move down to the wire. The more appropriate question is really whether Nkemdiche is better than players such as Ronald Powell, Jackson Jeffcoat and former Tiger DaQuan Bowers.
None of this diminishes the effect of Nkemdiche's commitment to Clemson, nor does it put a damper on his ability or upside. Dabo Swinney and company are recruiting at a ridiculous level and landing the nation's No. 1 player from out of state -- a prospect many felt would end up at Alabama or LSU -- will bring dividends this year and down the line. But when comparing the two Palmetto State commitments, Clowney has the edge, and a pretty good one at that.
Clowney is a rarity, and comparing other defensive ends to him is like comparing wide receivers to Jerry Rice or offensive tackles to Anthony Munoz. It's not fair.
Of course, a year from now we'll be asking this same question regarding 2014 phenom Da'Shawn Hand from Woodbridge (Va.) Woodbridge Senior, and that could be an interesting discussion.
Until then, there's reason to celebrate in Clemson after yet another five-star has committed to the Tigers, who could be assembling a roster capable of competing for a national title sooner rather than later.