On Clowney, the Gamecock defense, and the rest of the season

Jadeveon Clowney may be the biggest name, but he's not the only guy on the defense.

Jadeveon Clowney may be the biggest name, but he’s not the only guy on the defense.

It’s no secret that there’s a bit of unrest in Gamecock Nation these days. The latest reason for this came Saturday night, when Jadeveon Clowney announced to his coaches that he couldn’t play, shortly before the game started. The Clowney-less defense went out and was hardly impressive, allowing Kentucky to score 28 points, and fortunately the offense did enough to eke out a win.

Now, I like to avoid message boards because I think they’re generally the bowels of the internet, but I decided to take a gander on Saturday night, just to see what people were saying. There seemed to be a few major schools of thought:

  1. A win is a win, so let’s just be happy with that and move on.
  2. This was Kentucky and they aren’t what you’d call good, so we should’ve blown them out and this is embarrassing.
  3. Players shouldn’t play if they’re legitimately injured, so let’s not have a Clowney-related meltdown.
  4. Clowney is a selfish jerk who’s turning on his team, bench him or tell him to get lost.

Let’s take a look at the first two points. Yes, a win is a win, and there’s something to be said for being happy with that. On the other hand, South Carolina was 21-point favorite. And they won 35-28. At home. Against Kentucky. What’s most distressing is that yet again, the Cocks built up a huge lead and then let it slip away. That’s happened multiple times this season, and we still haven’t seen a solid, full-game performance. UK was one of the only teams on the schedule that USC was supposed to beat soundly, and yet they barely got a victory. I’m not saying that means they can’t rout Arkansas or Missouri or Tennessee if things all magically align correctly, I’m just saying it would be nice to not be just barely beating inferior teams.

Now, to the Clowney issue. After the UNC game, I wrote about how ESPN needed to lay off the Clowney criticisms, because it had only been one game and he had been unwell and they were essentially overreacting. I said that if weeks later we were still seeing similar problems, then maybe it’d be worth a closer look. Here we are, and now we need that closer look.

Clowney was a preseason finalist for the Heisman and projected as a top pick in the draft. He’s still going to get drafted highly, but he’s pretty much dropped out of Heisman contention entirely. While it would be cool – and obviously an honor for him – I’m not concerned about whether or not he’s going to win an award. I’m concerned about whether or not he’s going to contribute to the team.

I don’t know the guy, and I don’t know his intentions. I find it somewhat suspect that he’s had some kind of reason (some would say an excuse) for his play (or lack thereof) in every game. I would never advocate a guy playing if he’s seriously hurt, but at the same time, you look at someone like Connor Shaw, who will do whatever it takes to be on that field and give his team the best chance to win, and you wonder how a teammate could see that and not be willing to do the same.

We all scoffed at the stories over the summer suggesting that Clowney essentially take this year off, and while he has been in four of the five games, it does seem as though he could be protecting himself. On the other hand, he’s still been really fast and has been double and triple-teamed because other teams figured him out, so he’s obviously not going to be able to get as much pressure on opponents as he was last year.

So is Clowney trying saving himself for the NFL? Maybe. Is he just the victim of a lot of unfortunate medical/physical problems all at once? Maybe. Did the overhyped media reports that have been nonstop since last year finally get to him? Maybe. But what I think is most likely is that it’s combination of all those things, and the fact that opposing coaches have figured out how to plan around him, which limits his ability to make those SportsCenter Top 10 plays.

After he shocked the South Carolina coaches by pulling himself on Saturday night, Clowney was the victim of a dig or two from Steve Spurrier, who said that if Clowney wanted to play, he’d be welcome to. The HBC seemed pretty peeved by the whole situation, and that wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of his player.

The fact of the matter is that whether or not Clowney plays another snap at Carolina, the real problem is the defense as a whole. Yes, if he’s quit on them, I could see where that could spur other guys to give up too, but there’s no concrete proof that that’s happened, so we’re going to have to assume that he’s still a valid member of the team. He is questionable for the Arkansas game next weekend, though, so the defense is going to have to be prepared for the fact that he might not be active.

That being said, I know there are some young guys, but there are also players who have been around for a while and there is a clear lack of leadership within that unit. It’s all well and good for guys to say that they need to step up and everyone needs to give a better effort and do a better job, but now they actually need to start doing that. Everyone knows that Clowney’s going to get covered, so someone else needs to start making plays. And there needs to be accountability. Melvin Ingram isn’t walking through that door. DJ Swearinger isn’t walking through that door. Devin Taylor isn’t walking through that door. Someone who’s currently on the roster is going to have to step up and be a leader, or things are going to get ugly.

So what does all of this mean going forward? Well, on the bright side, I’m really happy that the offense has finally figured things out. Shaw is criminally underrated, but he is clearly the overall leader of this team and commands respect. He’s also the winningest QB in school history and he has a chance to keep setting records. If we could get everyone to have the same dedication and attitude he has, the team would be virtually unstoppable. Mike Davis has been incredible thus far, and the receiving corps is doing a nice job, too. Elliott Fry has also been a welcome surprise on special teams.

As fans, we’ve been spoiled by an ironclad defense these past few years, but there’s no reason – at least yet – to think that this year’s group won’t fix their problems. Now, if we’re still talking about defensive woes by the time the Mississippi State and Florida games roll around, then yes, that’s cause for concern.

USC’s next three games are on the road against conference opponents. Winning all three is obviously ideal, especially if there’s any hope left that the Cocks can make it to the SEC title game. Winning two of the three would probably kill any chances at going to Atlanta, but it would still keep the chances of another 11-2 season alive. Only winning one will still mean a 10-win season is possible, but I have to think that would be a rather large disappointment to many.

In short, it’s not time to hit the panic button quite yet, Gamecocks fans. Clowney’s situation has created a little drama, but it’s not out of control. I hope he does get better, and that he comes back and plays really well. We’re lucky to have had him at Carolina, and I hope the second half of his season is one to remember. Yes, this season has not gone quite as people might have anticipated, but our team is still sitting at 4-1. The wins haven’t been pretty and we all may need to get a cardiologist on speed dial, but let’s not throw in the towel quite yet.

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