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Jadeveon Clowney: From legend to lightning rod to No. 1 pick?

Jadeveon Clowney has spent the day in an office in Charlotte, N.C., with financial professionals who will manage and protect his future wealth. The short-term prospects are unquestionably bright, to the tune of eight figures. The goal is to make sure the long term is as sunny. Clowney, with energy to burn, has had enough of the conference rooms. But before going to work out, he holds court with his former high school coach, Bobby Carroll, and his agent, Bus Cook, among others. Clowney mentions that he incorporates the popular "Insanity" videos into his training and demonstrates one of fitness trainer Shaun T's signature moves, mimicking basketball jump shots with a squat in between. As a high school athlete, Clowney dabbled in basketball. "People love to see players dunk," he said, "and that's all I used to do -- dunk." Of course he did. What else would we expect?

On May 8, Jadeveon Clowney's life will change forever. That night, he'll be among the first picks -- perhaps the first pick -- in the 2014 NFL Draft. In the meantime, he runs and lifts and concentrates on staying healthy. On Wednesday, he'll participate in South Carolina's pro day. He won't run the 40-yard dash, having taken care of that at February's NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, a big man -- 6-foot-5 1/4, 266 pounds -- running a ridiculously fast 4.53.

Back in his familiar college environment, Clowney intends to showcase his skills in field drills.

"I'm gonna show them I move well through bag drills, and that my hips and feet are pretty good," Clowney said in an interview with NFL Network. "They want to see how you are through open space and how you move. So that's what I look forward to."

He knows he can rush the passer -- everyone knows this -- and is confident he can excel in coverage when the scheme calls for him to drop. His high school coaches say they occasionally would play him at outside linebacker, using his 83-inch wingspan to disrupt passing lanes. (For comparison: J.J. Watt's wingspan measures 82 1/2 inches.)

Last season, Clowney had to adjust his game at South Carolina to deal with double teams, sometimes triple teams, and he believes he's better for the experience. But his game is built on speed and quickness, and he said he wants to "develop my counter move off my speed rush."

He figures: "I'll be setting a lot of linemen up for big plays."

You get the feeling Clowney, who turned 21 on Valentine's Day, is eager for his pro day -- and more eager to be a pro. He says he wants to be great, which isn't much of a declaration, given his physical tools. But this is: "I want to be great to the point when you think about football players, you have to bring my name up in the conversation."

Clowney knows every eye will be on him Wednesday, trying to perceive something -- anything -- that provides a window into his competitive soul. There have been questions about his work ethic (we'll get to that), but there is no doubt about Clowney's athleticism and pure ability.

At the combine, one evaluator for an NFL team shook his head at the notion that any one of several players could be drafted first overall. "It's Clowney," he said. "Talent dictates he's the No. 1 pick. Has to be. You can't pass up that talent."

On Tuesday night, Clowney is expected to dine with Texans owner Bob McNair, general manager Rick Smith and head coach Bill O'Brien. Houston owns the first overall pick in the draft.

McNair, a South Carolina alumnus, told the Texans' website in January that Clowney "is a remarkable player. He's one of these players that's really a once-in-every-10-years kind of physical specimen that comes along." McNair already has spoken with Watt about the possibility of Clowney becoming his teammate.

So, about that pro day.

"(His) pro day will only get people more excited," a decision maker for another NFL team said. "Because he should blow it out of the water."

*****

On the national level, the legend of Jadeveon Clowney was born in a split second, on New Year's Day 2013, against Michigan in the Outback Bowl. Clowney knifed through the line and obliterated running back Vincent Smith as he took the handoff, simultaneously separating Smith's helmet from his head and the ball from his hands. The underappreciated conclusion of the play: Clowney recovered the fumble. Video of "The Hit" has been viewed millions upon millions of times. Clowney still hears about it "everywhere" he goes. "A lot of the people at the game said they didn't see it, but they heard it," he said. Of the continuing reaction, Clowney smiles and shakes his head, "It's crazy."

To be clear, by the end of his sophomore season, before that bowl game against the Wolverines, Clowney already might have been the best college football player in the country; he was a unanimous All-American and finished sixth in Heisman Trophy voting. However, in an instant, the hit lifted his profile to incredible heights. And, to Clowney's agent, Bus Cook, it will always provide a mythical measure of his college years.

"It reminds you of one of the old movies back in the days of vaudeville when they didn't have sound, and you'd see Charlie Chaplin run into a wall and fall down," Cook said. "It just happened so fast."

The play continues to reverberate, as Taylor Lewan was reminded at the combine when he was asked to explain it.

"It was not my fault," said Lewan, Michigan's left tackle on the play. "I hate to say it like that, because it's like I am blaming other people, but it was a double team between me and the guard on the backside linebacker. He just went unblocked."

Lewan took a breath. "At the same time, whether he was unblocked or not, that was one hell of a hit."

Clowney believes the hit created two certainties. The first? That he would get every opponent's best shot during the 2013 season. "A lot of guys played me a lot harder," Clowney said. "They were trying to prove a point out there on the field. I don't blame them. I like the competition. ... I'm out there to compete, and I hope everybody else out there on the field is competing."

The second? That he would be expected to make such highlight-reel plays on a regular basis. "Oh yeah," Clowney said. "It set a high standard."

*****

At South Pointe High School in Rock Hill, S.C., Clowney isn't just a graduate. He's an icon. Remember the goal-line stand -- when Clowney and the Stallions' defense stuffed an opponent on four downs from the 1-yard line -- that was followed by Clowney taking a handoff and running 99 yards for a touchdown on the ensuing offensive play? They surely remember here. "Knowing who he is, we've been waiting on this forever -- waiting on him to be a pro," current South Pointe football coach Strait Herron said. "Because we know that's what he is."

As you would expect, Clowney's high school career featured plenty of decorations: a state championship as a sophomore, runner-up as a senior, a 38-6 overall record. He was South Carolina's Mr. Football, made every All-American team. At South Pointe, he is an immensely popular figure, so popular he kept a visit last year secret in order to minimize the attention.

English teacher Cindy Koon remembers Clowney as a dedicated writer and frequent contributor to literature discussions in her classes, and also as a prankster who once snuck a plastic spider onto a cupcake she was dying to eat.

Homeroom -- they call it "Pointe Time" -- teacher Susan Fields said Clowney preferred to talk with classmates about family over football. Fields sometimes cooks meals for her students; Clowney's favorite was lasagna with sausage and hamburger.

And the school principal, Dr. Al Leonard, remembers calling Clowney into his office on several occasions, just to inquire how he was handling his growing stardom. Leonard said he would use professional athletes whose missteps had made headlines as examples to emphasize to Clowney the glare of the spotlight.

Carroll, South Pointe's football coach during Clowney's years, says it is impossible to comprehend Clowney's homegrown popularity until you witness it as he has, in restaurants and airports, at Gamecocks basketball games on campus, where Clowney signs autograph after autograph.

"He has iconic value, probably like Elvis did," Carroll said. "Rock-star aura."

The St. Louis Rams (No. 2 overall pick) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 7) sent representatives to South Pointe to learn all they could about Clowney. They sat at Herron's desk and inquired if Clowney was ever a discipline problem. Herron, who was Clowney's defensive coordinator, assured them he was not.

Both Carroll and Herron describe Clowney as humble, fun-loving and occasionally willing to show mercy on the playing field.

"He'll probably get mad at me for telling you this," Herron said, "but I've seen him pull up when he's had the chance to really hit a quarterback. He was coming from the back side, and he could have killed him. Instead, he just picked him up and threw him down."

*****

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When South Carolina was preparing in December for the Capital One Bowl, Herron stood watching, as other high school coaches do, from the sidelines. (Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore is also a South Pointe grad and played at South Carolina; Carroll and Herron have been welcome on those sidelines.) During the practice, Herron watched as Steve Spurrier became frustrated when Clowney pressured quarterback Connor Shaw on consecutive plays. "Get him off the field!" Spurrier said. "We can't get anything done with him out there!"

In high school, Clowney was so much better than other players, including his teammates, that Carroll often instructed him to go to the sidelines while the offense practiced. They weren't going to face a guy like Clowney on Friday nights, anyway.

At South Carolina, Herron wasn't particularly surprised to see Spurrier take the same approach. As Herron sees it, "Clowney wants to make every play."

But Clowney's effort was scrutinized during a 2013 season in which he logged just three sacks -- after recording 13 in 2012, a single-season record for the program -- including one in his last eight games. Was he really trying? Was this the same guy who dominated games a season before?

On Feb. 19, Spurrier was asked about Clowney's work ethic on NFL Network and said this: "He was OK. It wasn't like Marcus Lattimore, you know. Every player is a little different. ...

"His work habits are pretty good; they're not quite like Lattimore and maybe Stephon Gilmore, Melvin Ingram, some of those guys. But when the ball is snapped, he's got something nobody else has."

Perhaps it is worth noting that in all three of Clowney's seasons, the Gamecocks won 11 games, finished in the top 10 and won their bowl game. In 2013, defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles led the team in sacks.

"I didn't make a lot of plays last year, but the guy beside me made (9.5) sacks as a D-tackle," Clowney said. "That was big for him and big for our team. He helped our team out. I think I helped my team out even when I wasn't making a lot of plays. It was still a good season; we finished No. 4 in the country and we won 11 games again. I was happy about it."

As for his relationship now with Spurrier, Clowney said he has "nothing against him."

"Coach Spurrier is going to say what he wants to say, regardless," Clowney said. "Some days, he'd be at practice and he'd tell me, 'Don't go so hard, you're going to hurt somebody.' ... He'd take me off the field (and say), 'We don't need him out here right now.' "

As for those who suggest Clowney doesn't show the requisite love for the game to become a great pro, he is not as forgiving.

"When they say that, I take that as a spit in the face, really," Clowney said. "I wouldn't question that about me, personally. Do I love the game and take plays off? I don't take plays off. I wouldn't be playing this game if I didn't love it.

"I had the opportunity to go to school and play football, and I did. And I had the opportunity to sit out last year. Everyone was talking about sitting out, and I didn't. I was like, I want to play football. ... I really couldn't sit out on my teammates."

In his conversations with NFL teams, Cook -- who has a stable of high-profile clients and is perhaps best known for representing Brett Favre -- said no one has asked him about Clowney "taking plays off."

"Without question, regardless of position, he is the best talent in the draft," Cook said. "That's what I'm hearing from teams."

Cook contends that if Clowney is getting some sort of bad rap, that will change when people meet him.

"I don't know what the concept people have (of him) going in, but when they meet this guy, within five minutes, they realize he has that smile, he's got great demeanor, he's engaging," Cook said. "If it's an old lady or a little kid, he will engage them in conversation. If there is a negative image of him, I don't know where it came from. He's one of the nicest, most polite guys. He's a very, very good kid."

The NFL, of course, is largely concerned about production, about a player's drive -- his motor -- especially when it comes to a top draft pick.

Two evaluators for NFL teams compared the concerns about Clowney's every-down effort to the same knock on Julius Peppers when he came out of North Carolina. (Heading into his 13th season, Peppers has 118.5 career sacks.)

"The bottom line is, (Clowney's) a rare physical specimen with game-changing ability," one NFL executive concluded. "Similar concerns (to Peppers), but you can't overlook that type of game-changing talent."

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Jeff Fisher, whose Rams have the second overall pick in May, was asked at last week's NFL Annual Meeting if Clowney's lack of sacks in 2013 was a red flag.

"Not if you watch the games, it's not," Fisher said. "Because the effort's there. You've got to give offenses credit, too. I mean, they were aware of where he was."

O'Brien, who should get to know Clowney better at Tuesday's dinner, answered a similar query: "I dare you to find me a guy that plays 90 snaps like his life's on the line every game. But when the game's on the line, Jadeveon plays hard. He's an explosive player, he's a productive player, he's an instinctive player.

"So I think that's kind of been blown out of proportion. But at the same time, we've got to make sure we get to know him, and then keep getting to know him when we get there."

Those close to Clowney are firm in their conviction. "He's different from what people expect," said Carroll, the coach who knows him best. "He's humble; lots of 'Yes sirs, no sirs.' He's a great kid. And I'll tell you what, if you ever play spades, you want to play with Clowney. He's a great spades player."

*****

When the South Pointe Stallions capped their 15-0 season with a state championship in 2008 -- Clowney was a sophomore -- every player received a ring. The following year, Clowney's bookbag was stolen from the school gym; his ring, which was inside, was gone. Recently, Clowney asked Carroll about getting a replacement. His reason? Clowney told Carroll that he wants to keep the high school ring and the South Carolina bowl rings together -- so they can be joined at some point by a Super Bowl ring. "He's such a strong competitor, that will weigh on his mind," Carroll said. "He's going into the NFL, regardless of where, saying, We're going to win a Super Bowl."

Clowney grew up in Rock Hill, S.C., about 30 miles from Charlotte and a little more than an hour's drive north of Columbia, home of the University of South Carolina. His mother, Josenna, instilled in him early the idea that he could never quit. And that included a miserable baseball season when he was 12 and couldn't hit the ball. He didn't enjoy the season, but he finished it.

Now Clowney says his motivation is to take care of his mother -- he also has an older sister and three young nieces -- to which Josenna offers a sigh.

"I know," she said. "But I tell him, he owes me nothing. I did what I did for him because I love him. He's my child. And I wasn't looking for anything in return."

Josenna and her father, John Clowney, are with Jadeveon on this day. They beam.

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"I'm so proud of him," Josenna said. "I want him to fulfill his dream, and this has been his dream since he was 5, 6 years old."

"It's a great experience for me," Jadeveon's grandfather said, "because he's made his own dreams come true."

Josenna credits her father for helping the family over the years; he bought Jadeveon's first football equipment. She has worked for nearly 20 years at the Frito-Lay plant in Charlotte, and now everyone wants to know when she's going to quit. (Many playfully suggest May 9.) She says she doesn't know and appears to agonize over the decision.

"Frito-Lay has been good to me over the years. I love my job," she said. "It's going to be hard to walk away from that, because that's all I've been used to for the last 19, 20 years. Frito-Lay has been good for (Jadeveon). It enabled me to take care of him. He has not had a bad childhood."

There is ample uncertainty in the Clowney household these days -- and Josenna does not see her son as often as she'd like, because he is so busy -- but it is happy uncertainty. An anticipation of a dream realized, of good days to come.

Josenna's wish for her son? "I want him to know where he comes from and to give back to the community."

Jadeveon said he'll miss Rock Hill and South Pointe. He promises to return.

"That's gonna be me forever," he said. "Everything I did, I did in Rock Hill, (at) South Pointe. I'm gonna miss it."

But there is more to do.

It is the 24th of March, and the Houston Rockets are visiting the Charlotte Bobcats. Clowney sits courtside. He takes a picture with Michael Jordan.

After the game, he is invited into the Rockets' locker room, where a gregarious Dwight Howard predicts that Clowney will join him in Houston.

Howard then conducts an impromptu interview, microphone and all.

"Are you ready for the draft?" Howard asks.

"I'm ready, man," a smiling Clowney says.

Howard: "You had a great collegiate career -- now it's time to take it to the next level. What are your goals?"

"Shooting for Rookie of the Year, man," Clowney says. "Sacks, tackles for loss. Shooting for Rookie of the Year."

Follow Kimberly Jones on Twitter @KimJonesSports.

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