To help get you through college football’s slow days of late June and early July -- before conference media days launch the preseason festivities — we’re counting down the 12 most important South Carolina Gamecocks and 12 most important Clemson Tigers for 2013. One Gamecock and one Tiger every day, so you can spend part of your summer studying the players who will make a difference for your team come autumn.
SOUTH CAROLINA NO. 1 - JADEVEON CLOWNEY
Who else were you expecting in the No. 1 spot?
Clowney— and he is now one of those one-name-only guys in the college sports world — is already one of the most successful players in USC history. He has 35½ career tackles for loss (23½ last year) and 21 sacks (13 last year). USC’s career tackle for loss record is 54½. Its sack record is 29. Clowney could very well own both by the time his three-year career ends. He already owns the single-season marks in both categories, from last season.
He is already on his way toward being an NFL multi-millionaire next spring when he is drafted first overall. (At this point, it’s silly to even qualify Clowney’s standing as the No. 1 pick with an “if.”) Most NFL draft observers believe he would have been the first pick if he was eligible to come out after his sophomore season.
Clowney is far and away USC’s most talented and disruptive player. Forget the Heisman Trophy speculation for a minute, and the hand-wringing about whether a defensive player can win that trophy even though many people believe Clowney is the best player in all of college football. None of that debate has any impact on how Clowney will help USC win games in 2013.
Because that’s what he does — he changes the course of games. Everybody remembers how he did it in the Outback Bowl against Michigan, when his helmet-popping hit of Vincent Smith gave USC the ball at Michigan’s 31 — and, one play later, a 27-22 lead with 8:06 left in the game, after a Connor Shaw touchdown pass.
But that wasn’t Clowney’s most impressive play of the season, and there is no arguing this. He was unblocked and crushed a man much smaller than him, though Clowney certainly got into the backfield in a flash.
A truer reflection of Clowney’s full skill set came against Tennessee, which USC beat 38-35. On an afternoon when tailback Marcus Lattimore was again lost for the season to a knee injury, USC was teetering on the brink of what would’ve been a bad loss, to a team that finished 5-7. Tennessee had first and 10 at USC’s 19. Then Clowney beat tackle Antonio Richardson, a legit NFL prospect in his own right, off the edge for a strip sack with 1:08 left.
Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray’s helmet stayed on, and that play didn’t get nearly the amount of attention as the bowl game hit — on which, again, Clowney wasn’t blocked. But if you want to know what Clowney does when he is blocked — which, in 2013, will be on every single play, and sometimes by two opponents — then look no further, and be sure to tune in again this autumn.
CLEMSON NO. 1 - TAJH BOYD
Like it could really be anybody else.
Honestly: Dabo Swinney, Chad Morris and Brent Venables could all put in the greatest game-planning years of their lives, and it wouldn’t matter if Tajh Boyd takes a Denard Robinson-like plunge or — hold your breath — went down with an injury. It would be really difficult to argue Boyd out of a debate over the five most important college football players to his team in the entire country. Manziel, Bridgewater ... and then a few other quarterbacks right there alongside Boyd.
You know why Clemson fans can’t contain their excitement for the 2013 season? Why the expectations are relatively higher than pretty much any other school in the country? Because they know what they have in their quarterback. A passer. A runner. A veteran. A leader. A gamer. An American Idol, to patriot-ize it up this holiday weekend.
His passing efficiency last year was fifth in the country — higher than Heisman finalist Collin Klein and Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. He’s just the third Clemson quarterback to rush for 500 yards and 10 touchdowns in one year. He’s the only ACC player to be responsible for 38 touchdowns in a season — and he’s done it twice. Clemson has back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in two decades, and Boyd’s started every game since Opening Day 2011. He took a battering from LSU’s powerful defense last year when the Tigers had to shuffle their offensive line on the fly (and Sammy Watkins was gone for the game with an ankle injury) — and he got up every time. Finally, his good-guy persona has been well-documented. He’s got a good head on his shoulders, coming from a good family and constantly doing the right thing while keeping his name clear from rumor mills and police reports.
Boyd could probably transfer to, say, Boston College right now and probably still lead the woeful Golden Eagles to a bowl game. He’s that talented all by himself. This is football. It is a team game. The Tigers need all 12 players on this list and so many more to culminate in a season for the ages. Guarantee this, though: the pen to Clemson’s 2013 memoir is in the right hand of its fifth-year senior quarterback.
Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd (10) beats N.C. State linebacker Rickey Dowdy (34) as he gains yardadage during the first half at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, November 17, 2012, in Clemson, South Carolina. The Clemson Tigers defeated the N.C. State Wolfpack, 62-48. (Ethan Hyman/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT)×