ROCK HILL — Ellis Johnson, the new defensive coordinator at South Carolina, had barely settled into his office overlooking Williams-Brice Stadium when he heard about a player at South Pointe High School in Rock Hill.
Position: Defensive End
Ht: 6-6 Wt: 274
Solo tackles: 57
He made the 60-mile trek up Interstate 77 and found South Pointe head coach Bobby Carroll waiting for him just outside the school’s practice field. Johnson was there to see a kid by the name of Stephon Gilmore.
In a flash, Johnson knew Gilmore, who played quarterback and cornerback, could be a difference-maker for the Gamecocks. Before leaving for the drive back to Columbia, Johnson asked Carroll if there were any other players he should see.
As a matter of fact, Carroll said, he did have one in mind. The coach pointed to the other end of the practice field where linemen were running drills.
Johnson noticed a tall, lanky kid, maybe 6-3 and 200 pounds. He was half a football field away, but instinctively Johnson began to drift closer to get a better look.
The kid exploded out of his stance and the offensive linemen could barely get a hand on him.
“Who’s that?” Johnson asked, pointing to the player with the No. 90 jersey.
“Oh, that’s JD Clowney, he’s the one I was talking about,” Carroll said.
“What year is he?” asked Johnson.
“He’s a freshman, going to be a sophomore next season,” Carroll responded.
Johnson turned to look at Carroll, thinking maybe he’d heard incorrectly. Carroll just nodded his head.
Johnson took out a notebook, jotted down Clowney’s name, underlined it twice, and walked back to his car.
“You just knew,” said Johnson, who is now the defensive coordinator at Auburn. “That’s the only way I can describe it. You look at a kid, you watch him move and you know he’s going to be special. I knew the moment I saw JD that he had the potential to be a great player. Did I think he would be this good? I don’t know that anyone can say that for sure when he’s a freshman in high school, but I knew he had the potential to be a great player.”
Johnson, who has been a college coach for nearly three decades, can remember just one other defensive player as dominant at the high school level as Clowney — Aiken’s William Perry, who would go on to garner cult-like status as “The Fridge” with the Chicago Bears.
Johnson remembers watching him during his senior season and thinking the kid could already play at Bank of America Stadium with the Carolina Panthers in the NFL.
“He never belonged in high school,” Johnson said. “He was just too good. I always felt like you could put him in a Panthers uniform, put him on the field on third down passing plays, and no one would know he didn’t belong on the field with those NFL guys.”
The legend begins
Long before “The Hit” in last year’s Outback Bowl, or NFL draft projections and Heisman Trophy predictions, there was the Sylvia Circle Demons, a youth football team in Rock Hill.
Eric Mitchell was coaching the Demons when a tall kid and his mother walked onto the practice field on a hot August afternoon. Mitchell was coaching the small fry team — ages 6 to 8 — and barely gave them a second glance. He assumed they were headed to the pee wee practice for 10-year-old kids.
When Josenna Clowney stopped to talk with Mitchell, his jaw nearly dropped. Although a little on the skinny side, 8-year-old Jadeveon towered over the rest of the players. He was even big by pee wee standards.
“He was huge and I was like, ‘Oh, Lord, thank you for bringing him out here to me,’ ” Mitchell said.
Mitchell put him at defensive end, linebacker and running back that first season, recalling one of the first times Clowney carried the ball in a game.
Clowney ran 30 yards with defenders riding on his back, unable to bring him down. By the time he reached the end zone, four players were hanging on to him.
“It was like they were never there,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell would routinely hold Clowney out of tackling drills because he didn’t want his other players to get hurt.
“He might have killed someone out there,” Mitchell said.
Gilmore, now a cornerback for the Buffalo Bills, remembers Clowney from those youth football days.
“When he played small fry, no one wanted to tackle him,” said Gilmore, who is two years older than Clowney. “Then he’d come up there and practice with us and no one wanted to tackle him either.”
The legend continues
Clowney would have attended Northwestern High School in Rock Hill, but a change in the school zones sent him to rival South Pointe. Carroll, who was beginning his first year as head football coach at the school, remembers the first time he saw Clowney.
“To be honest, I thought he was an adult,” Carroll said. “As I got closer, I realized he was kid. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it.”
Carroll put Clowney at running back his freshman season, and he responded by scoring more than 30 touchdowns. He was used as a defensive end during obvious passing situations, and Carroll was convinced Clowney’s future would be on defense.
But convincing Clowney to give up carrying the football wasn’t an easy sell.
“I was going to quit football when they told me I couldn’t be a running back anymore,” Clowney said. “I told my mother I was done.”
Carroll didn’t flinch and continued lobbying Clowney to focus on defense. Clowney reluctantly agreed.
“Best decision I ever made,” Clowney said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if I’d stayed at running back.”
During practices, Clowney would amaze teammates with his athleticism. Gilmore, an all-state quarterback in high school, remembers getting loose on a couple of long runs only to have Clowney catch him from behind.
“I would feel this big hand grab the back of my jersey, and then I was like, ‘Who is this guy on my back,’ ” Gilmore said.
By his sophomore season, Clowney was attracting the attention of college coaches. Before his senior season, he was national news. Clowney was the No. 1 prospect in the country and had more than 100 college offers. During his senior season, a documentary television crew followed him around for weeks.
“In the 15 years I’ve been doing recruiting, Jadeveon Clowney is the best prospect I’ve ever seen, period,” said Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell.
The final chapter
When Clowney got to South Carolina, he relied almost exclusively on his athletic ability to get to the quarterback.
It was something that Johnson and defensive line coach Brad Lawing spent hours trying to correct.
“I had the worst technique when I came here. All I had was speed,” Clowney said. “I used to come off the ball, throw my shoulder into the offensive lineman and hope I could get to the quarterback.”
There were times when speed alone did work, but Clowney realized early that it wouldn’t be effective against some of the elite offensive tackles in the SEC.
“I knew I had to use my hands,” Clowney said. “Using your hands is a big part of football. You can beat a lot of guys just by using your hands and not being strong.”
The big plays started to come. After getting dominated most of the game against Georgia as a freshman, he stripped quarterback Aaron Murray, forcing a fumble that teammate Melvin Ingram recovered for a touchdown.
But for every big play, Johnson and Ward noticed that Clowney would give minimal effort on other plays.
“He took plays off,” Ward said. “I think a lot of that was because he wasn’t in shape. That’s what we’ve been trying to get him to work on.”
Playing with a sore foot for most of the 2012 season, Clowney set a single-season school record with 13 sacks, including 41/2 against rival Clemson. He won the Hendricks Award, which is given to the top defensive end in the county, and was sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Ward can remember a play against Florida when the Gators ran the read option on Clowney. Clowney stepped into the hole to stop the fullback, then slid down the line of scrimmage to force the quarterback to pitch the ball to the running back, who was immediately met by Clowney for a 2-yard loss.
By himself, Clowney had stopped all three options. The Gators didn’t run the play to his side of the field the rest of the game.
“He took away all three phases,” Ward said. “That is pretty impressive.”
There’s little doubt that Clowney will be the first player picked in next April’s NFL draft. Even before The Hit and the EPSY Award, Clowney was considered to be the best player in college football. Some NFL scouts are calling Clowney the best prospect in a decade.
Clowney doesn’t pay it much attention. He hasn’t bought into the hype.
“It’s just talk,” Clowney said. “That’s what people do.”