Sapakoff: Who’s afraid of Clowney? Not UNC quarterback Bryn Renner
Bryn Renner knows the frame-by-frame sequence better than giddy Gamecock fans or ESPY voters. Jadeveon Clowney zips unblocked into the Michigan backfield and ferociously crams his facemask into Vincent Smith’s chest, sending the unsuspecting running back’s helmet into orbit. A split-second changed Outback Bowl momentum and made Clowney famous from Tampa to Hollywood.
“I’ve seen it a lot,” said Renner, North Carolina’s senior quarterback. “It’s always on SportsCenter.”
Put yourself in this poor guy’s cleats: Renner is the one quarterback in the country who has had all off-season to plan for Clowney’s first snaps since the Outback Bowl. Next Thursday night, South Carolina’s All-American defensive end and his teammates play host to the Tar Heels at Williams-Brice-Clowney Stadium.
Renner is the next victim, the designated foil in the much-anticipated “Return of Clowney: The Final Chapter” premier. Ever seen those wildlife shows where the hapless gazelle gets separated from the tour group as carnivores approach?
North Carolina vs. South Carolina isn’t just some run-of-the-mill football squabble between former rivals. It’s ESPN’s new docudrama featuring a smart, skilled, relentless lead actor.
And shark bait.
A lot has happened since New Year’s Day in Florida.
Clowney snarled at quarterbacks. He said Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, Georgia’s Aaron Murray and former Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson were “scared.”
The Hit won an ESPY Award.
Renner studied gobs of South Carolina tape, keeping an eye on No. 7.
“He’s a great player,” Renner said. “He’s a phenomenal talent. Just watching him on film, you can see that. But in order to get our program to where we want to go, we have to play top teams, and South Carolina is a top team. We’re looking forward to playing against a top team, and the best player in the country.”
The respect is there for the No. 6 team in the Associated Press preseason poll and the player projected as the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
But “scared” in the pocket?
Renner said he won’t have time for fear.
The Tar Heels in Larry Fedora’s “Fed Spread” offense aim to play fast. The second-year head coach at his introductory Chapel Hill news conference said anyone making a concession stand trip will probably miss a touchdown.
“Luckily, we run an up-tempo offense so I don’t really have time to survey the field that much,” Renner said. “But you always are going to know where (Clowney) is going to be. That’s the best thing we can do to try and control him.”
‘Just the tenacity’
Renner is formidable, too.
He’s a big guy at 6-3, 225.
He’s tough, and looks the part. A few guests at the Grandover Resort in Greensboro, N.C., mistook Renner for former NFL star Brett Favre last month during the ACC Football Kickoff.
“Yeah,” Renner said, “I get that a lot.”
North Carolina senior left tackle James Hurst, Renner’s insurance policy, is one of the best in the country. Note that Clowney for the most part struggled against Michigan standout left tackle Taylor Lewan. Hurst is a 6-7, 305-pound All-America candidate.
A full year of adjusting to Fedora’s system gives Renner a confidence boost, even with top running back Giovani Bernard gone to the Cincinnati Bengals.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Everything feels comfortable now. We know what we’re doing and we know what to do when we open the season. Last year, it was more like worrying about what I had to do, but this year I can worry more about the rest of the offense. We’re really anxious to see what we can do.”
North Carolina scored 40.5 points per game last season, up from 28.3 in 2011. The Tar Heels went 8-4 but were favored in 10 games.
Still, we’re talking about Clowney, a 6-6, 274-pound obstructionist who can cover 40 yards in 4.4 seconds.
“Just the tenacity when he gets off the ball,” Renner said. “He’s very fast, very physical. He has all the tools you would want in a defensive end.”
A total of 13 sacks with 4.5 coming in one game (Clemson) isn’t a scary total for an entire season. But Bryn Renner knows Clowney had a knack in 2012 for turning games around in an instant classic. He doesn’t even have to dive into his stockpile of South Carolina video.
It’s always on SportsCenter.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.