GEORGIA OFFENSIVE TACKLE CORDY GLENN KNOCKED THE HERALDED SOUTH CAROLINA freshman defensive end off course and surged ahead to block a linebacker. The plan was for Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray to take the shotgun snap, fire off a screen pass, and help the Bulldogs move closer to taking back the lead. That was the plan.
But by the time Murray caught the snap and took one step back, that heralded freshman was on top of him. After the bump from Glenn, Jadeveon Clowney had righted his path and covered the eight yards between the line of scrimmage and Murray faster than any 6' 6" 256-pounder should. Clowney grabbed the back of Murray's jersey and flung him backward toward the Bulldogs' end zone. As Murray flew, the ball squirted from his hand. South Carolina defensive end Melvin Ingram scooped it up and scored the touchdown that gave the Gamecocks the cushion they needed to win a game they had no business winning.
Clowney, playing just the second game of his college career, made sacking and stripping one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC look easy. Even more amazing, Clowney, the nation's top-ranked recruit in the class of 2011, didn't even have a full grasp of the Gamecocks' playbook.
"I didn't know much last season," Clowney says. "I was just tiptoeing out there not knowing what I was supposed to do."
After a full off-season, Clowney now better understands the concepts his coaches preach. He'll no longer need a veteran to help him line up and tell him where to attack. That means he'll play more often—coach Steve Spurrier estimates Clowney's inexperience cost him about 30 snaps a game last season—and he won't have to tiptoe anymore. As a sophomore Clowney should know enough to play at full-speed, a thought that might terrify every quarterback in the SEC. "When God made him," South Carolina defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles says, "He made a beast."
At South Pointe (S.C.) High, Clowney succeeded by being bigger and faster than everyone else. In the SEC he meets blockers much bigger and stronger than he is. He still runs faster than other linemen, but that gap has narrowed. For every time Clowney burst through the line for a sack or chased down a ballcarrier from behind last season, there were at least two times he got swallowed by a blocker because Clowney was out of position or used poor technique. Still, even without knowing the plays or the proper methods, and despite the limited snaps, Clowney's instincts and freakish physical attributes helped him rack up five forced fumbles, six hurries and eight sacks. Twelve of Clowney's 36 tackles resulted in a loss of yardage.
Defensive line coach Brad Lawing says Clowney's talent made it impractical to wait until Clowney was properly trained before unleashing him. "If you've got an exceptional player, to have him over there drinking Gatorade isn't very smart," Lawing says. "You get him on the field and have somebody help him through the series."
Lawing says Clowney still hasn't mastered the defense, but the sophomore has grown comfortable grabbing the grease pen in the defensive line meeting room and diagramming plays. "The playbook was harder than I expected," he says. "But now it's pretty easy." Even the most exquisitely designed sack machines get better with some internal tinkering, and this season Clowney 2.0 could arrive at a speed few blockers, or quarterbacks, can handle. As Lawing says, "Clowney can be as good a player as he wants to be."