The press box at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday will be crowded with NFL scouts excited to see Jadeveon Clowney, who many college football observers have touted as a potential No. 1 pick in next year's NFL draft. The game against the Volunteers will be a chance for Clowney to prove he's worthy of the label.
I believe Clowney is a very good player, one who could be drafted anywhere in the top 10, but he has not performed to the standard of someone who has been called, among other things, the best defensive prospect of the last 10 years. In my opinion, he has been over-publicized, and I think if people watched him and graded him on every game and every play, they would see a strong player but not really a Heisman Trophy candidate or a No. 1 draft pick.
Now, when you're a college starter being discussed as a top-10 pick, that doesn't mean you're a bad player. But what I've seen from Clowney has not impressed me as much as it has impressed most others. I'm not just referring to this year, either.
I went back and watched tape of all of Clowney's games in his first two seasons. As a freshman, he had 18 tackles and eight sacks, but he also was held without a sack in eight games. He also had two really good players with him on the defensive line that often demanded double-teams -- Melvin Ingram, who went on to be drafted in the first round in 2012, and Devin Taylor, a fourth-round pick the following year. This obviously gave Clowney a chance to be better.
As a sophomore, teams concentrated more on stopping Clowney, but he improved, totaling 40 tackles and 13.5 sacks. Most observers point to his game against Michigan in the Outback Bowl, in which he made his infamous play on Wolverines RB Vincent Smith, but if you analyze his performance play for play, he did not dominate the game. He played OK, but that one hit swayed the perception of his game and his status as a prospect in general.
When I evaluate a defensive end, I want him to not only have quickness getting off the ball but also compete to the end of every play. I want to see him fighting until the whistle blows. To me, it doesn't look like Clowney put in the necessary work over the summer to be in top shape. Through the five games Clowney has played in this season, he has not shown the intensity or the consistent effort needed to play a physically demanding position. I think that's an issue. Most people don't realize how physically hard it is to rush the passer. You have to be in really good shape because you're exerting so much energy while an offensive lineman is more or less absorbing you. That's why defensive linemen are substituted in waves while offensive linemen stay in the game. It's a very, very hard job.
Going on this season's performance, right now I view Clowney more as a top-10 pick rather than the top pick, and if I had to draft today I would take UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr over him. I didn't think that way before the season, but I have seen more consistency from Barr in terms of effort, and it is clear that Barr was better prepared and more ready to play than Clowney.
Saturday's game against the Volunteers, in which Clowney will face a very good offensive line anchored by an outstanding left tackle in Antonio Richardson, begins what will be an important stretch for him. He needs to perform well, especially these next two weeks on the road against Tennessee and Missouri, and prove that he can respond to the challenge. Knowing head coach Steve Spurrier, I'm sure he has impressed upon Clowney how important the games will be not only for the Gamecocks but for Clowney's future in the NFL. If Clowney comes prepared and has exceptional games, let's revisit the discussion of him as a top pick.
Three others with something to prove
Washington TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins: After totaling 110 receptions for 1,390 yards and 13 touchdowns over the past two years, Seferian-Jenkins' production has fallen off this year. He missed all of spring practice after serving a suspension because of a DUI, and so far this year he has just 16 catches for 185 yards and three TDs. One of the reasons his production is down is that the Huskies have been emphasizing the run. But Seferian-Jenkins does not seem to have improved as a blocker or route runner either. He needs to play well at Arizona State this weekend and the rest of the way if he is to move up in the draft. Right now he is teetering toward the end of the first round, possibly into the second, but because of the importance of tight ends he could very easily move up as high as the middle of the first round if he picks up his play.
Arizona State DT Will Sutton: Sutton was outstanding last year, when he had 13 sacks, 23 tackles for loss, and three forced fumbles while playing at about 275 pounds. This year he is listed at 308 pounds and has only one sack. He seems to have lost his quickness. Against Stanford, he was really knocked around despite the added weight and didn't seem to have the ability to get off blocks and make the quick moves that he had in the past. He has to improve over the next six games if he is going to be a first-round pick, starting with the Sun Devils' homecoming game against Washington this weekend.
Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde: I'm anxious to see what Hyde can do against Iowa and Penn State coming off a game at Northwestern in which he had 26 carries for 162 yards and three TDs. Hyde's problem has been inconsistency -- he'll have a big game, followed by a bad game. If he plays well the rest of this year he has a chance to move up to the bottom of the first or the top of the second round of the draft. I think he's turned the corner and can improve his draft status if he continues to establish himself as that big back who will pound it up the middle.
Three games that interest me
Florida State at Clemson: Both of these teams are national title contenders. Both have very good quarterbacks: Clemson's Tajh Boyd could be the top QB selected in the draft, and Florida State's QB, Jameis Winston, is an outstanding redshirt freshman. Tigers DE Vic Beasley, a junior, leads the nation with nine sacks. I think this game comes down to special teams, and Florida State's is better. I've got Florida State winning, 47-43.
Colorado State at Wyoming: These two schools are located 67 miles apart, from stadium to stadium. The first time they played was in 1899, and they've played every year since 1946 in what is called the Border War. These are two programs with very good young coaches. The Cowboys have a very good junior QB in Brett Smith and a possible first-round WR in Robert Herron. CSU has one of the best centers in this year's draft, Weston Richburg. This is a great rivalry, and I see Wyoming winning its fifth straight game in the series, 34-28.
USC at Notre Dame: USC wants to run, and Notre Dame has a tough time stopping the run, but Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly is very good coming off a bye week, as Notre Dame is this weekend. Notre Dame's loss of linebackers will hurt them. USC starts just six seniors but wins, 31-28. The star of the game will be Trojans RB Tre Maddon.
SMU over Memphis: Mustangs coach June Jones does a great job with the passing game, which happens to be a weakness in the Tigers' defense. SMU QB Garrett Gilbert is coming off an overtime loss to Rutgers in which he went 45 of 70 for 484 yards with five TDs and no interceptions.