By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
There was no shortage of defensive playmakers in the Southeastern Conference in 2012.
Standouts like Dee Milliner (Alabama), Matt Elam (Florida), Jarvis Jones (Georgia), Sam Montgomery (LSU), and Damontre Moore (Texas A&M) all made waves with their stellar play this season. But out of all the impact players on that side of the ball in a conference known for its defensive prowess, one man stood out above the rest.
That man was Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina.
Clowney, a sophomore defensive end, was simply unstoppable for the Gamecocks all year long on his way to earning the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award. In only his second year of collegiate football, the Rock Hill, S.C., native set a school record for sacks in a single season with 13 and also set a school mark with 21.5 tackles for loss. He was one of three players tied atop the national lead in sacks and trailed only Jones nationally in the tackles for loss department.
Those type of numbers are tough to attain at defensive end for anyone, but especially for an end the caliber of Clowney, who is always a focal point of opposing teams’ game plans.
Billed as the top recruit nationally out of high school, Clowney has lived up to every lofty expectation placed on his broad shoulders. As a freshman last season, he notched eight sacks and 12 tackles for loss on his way to SEC Freshman of the Year and second-team All-SEC honors.
As a sophomore, Clowney was not only the most dominant defensive player in the SEC, but he was arguably the most feared pass rusher in all of college football. He finished the regular season in a three-way tie for the national lead in sacks with Florida State’s Bjoern Werner and UCLA’s Anthony Barr, but he did so while playing in two fewer games than his counterparts. Unlike Barr and Werner, who each played in 13 games this season, Clowney only needed 11 contests to rack up his big numbers; he sat out South Carolina’s Nov. 17 bout with Wofford due to a foot injury, and the Gamecocks did not play in a conference title game as the Bruins and Seminoles did.
In addition to SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Clowney’s 2012 showing earned him the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation’s top defensive end.
Clowney is not only the first sophomore to win the award in its 11-year history, but he did it in record fashion by taking two-thirds of the vote, more than any other recipient has garnered. Every previous winner of the award has gone on to become a first-round NFL Draft selection, and the list includes esteemed players such as Da’Quan Bowers, Brian Orakpo, Chris Long, Lamarr Woodley and David Pollack.
While offenses can do their best to mitigate the impact of a defensive end with double-team blocks, rolling protections, quick passes and the like, Clowney has proven himself too dominant to be fazed.
While Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o received much of the national acclaim as an outstanding defender, Clowney was every bit as impactful for South Carolina. Te’o’s second-place finish in the Heisman Trophy balloting may have actually opened up the door for Clowney to make a run at the award next season if he continues to make himself at home in opposing backfields.
At 6-foot-6 and 256 pounds, Clowney possesses freakish athleticism that already has him pegged as a potential number one pick in the NFL Draft. His speed rush is almost uncontainable, and his athletic ability has produced unreal highlights – for evidence, look no further than his hurdling evasion of Georgia running back Keith Marshall’s block attempt back in September.
In a conference loaded with elite defenses and NFL caliber talent, being named the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year is an honor of the highest regard. Fans will have the pleasure of watching Clowney wreak havoc in South Carolina’s Outback Bowl showdown with Michigan in January and once again next season, but offensive coordinators across the SEC will be anything but happy to see him in 2013.