COLUMBIA, S.C. – It's finally time for Clowney season.
For the next four months or so, college football's focus will be locked onto Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina's fearsome, 6-foot-6, 274-pound defensive end.
"I know he's ready to get things going," said Chaz Sutton, the Gamecocks' other defensive end. "We all are."
The anticipation for Clowney's year began last New Year's when he dislodged the helmet of Michigan runner Vincent Smith at the Outback Bowl, sending it flying like a champagne cork.
His final year starts Thursday night — "Clowney we treat him like a senior. He's leaving," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier says — when the sixth-ranked Gamecocks open the season against North Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium. Clowney's been lowkey since the Gamecocks opened camp per Spurrier's orders, yet has continued pushing himself in workouts for a strong college finish.
Spurrier glanced over Saturday at the end of workouts and saw Clowney leading the way in wind sprints. "So I said, 'That's a good sign when he's leading the pack of linemen over and back,'" Spurrier said. "So I think he's ready to go and our team's ready to go."
That's very bad news for opposing quarterbacks. Clowney put up 13 sacks last year and stands eight away from the Gamecocks' all-time mark of 29 set by Eric Norwood.
Clowney's skills were evident in high school and he's only improved in college. He ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash time this summer after getting challenged by South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward to improve his conditioning so he could be more consistent on the field. Talk to any coach or player who had to prepare for Clowney and they don't share Ward's worries.
Georgia coach Mark Richt called Clowney the best football player in the world. North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said Clowney's the most difficult defender he ever prepared for, even surpassing ex-NFL star Brian Urlacher.
Clowney "plays at a different speed than other guys because he is faster than other guys, and he plays hard," Fedorda said. "I'm trying to remember which game it was where I saw them hand the ball off to the back on a sweep, and he broke and I think Clowney caught him about 25 yards down the field."
James Hurst, the Tar Heels left tackle who'll match up against Clowney, has spent the offseason watching film and still isn't sure there are any weaknesses in his game. "I just think it's rare to find a guy with such speed and power," Hurst said. "The plays that he does make are game changing. It's rare that you see that."
Clowney continues to wow his teammates, too. He and teammate Gerald Dixon overturned a tackling sled at one of the Gamecocks early summer practices. At a Aug. 17 scrimmage, South Carolina offensive lineman couldn't keep Clowney off quarterback Connor Shaw in two series.
"We act like we didn't even try to block Clowney," a frustrated Spurrier said after the session. "Maybe we're afraid to block him, I don't know. Hopefully, he's that good but I've seen other people block him."
Hurst and his North Carolina linemates get the first chance to try. Tar Heels offensive coordinator Blake Anderson won't change his offense scheme to concentrate on Clowney and his amazing first step. It'll be up to everyone on the offense to do their jobs, make plays and keep moving the ball despite the pressure Clowney's likely to apply.
Clowney typically makes his mark at the game's biggest juncture. As a freshman his sack and strip of Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray led to a Gamecocks defensive touchdown that proved the difference in a 45-42 victory. Last year, Clowney sacked Tyler Bray and caused a fumble with the Vols driving for a go-ahead score late in South Carolina's win. And, of course, there was "The Hit" at the Outback Bowl where Clowney shook off a strong game-long effort by Michigan lineman Taylor Lewan to regain the ball for the Gamecocks on the way to victory.
Count on Clowney getting his share of sacks and tackles, too, Anderson says.
"You didn't shut Michael jordan down when he played," Anderson said. "He was going to score some points. You don't shut LeBron James down when they play. So (Clowney is ) that kind of a guy, he's that caliber of player."
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard contributed to this story from Chapel Hill, N.C.