COLUMBIA -- Jadeveon Clowney played pretty well last season for a guy who, by his own admission, barely knew the plays. He ranked second on South Carolina in tackles for loss (12) and sacks (eight) and tied for sixth in the country with five forced fumbles. And he didn't even play full games because Melvin Ingram and Devin Taylor were USC's top two defensive ends.

Ingram is gone, and in 2012 more will be required of Clowney, the nation's top-rated recruit in the Class of 2011. His coaches expect him to learn the system and move past the academic hiccups he experienced during his freshman year.

"JD is a young man that's probably had a lot of things given to him in his life, and it's not going to happen that way here," said defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. "He understands, and I think he'll get better and better."

Clowney was suspended for the first quarter of last year's regular season finale against Clemson because of an academic shortcoming. Another academic issue resulted in him missing the first day of spring practices. But Clowney believes that when USC fans watch him in today's first spring scrimmage, at 10 a.m. at Williams-Brice Stadium, they will see a more focused player.

"You've got to go to class to play football," he said. "I want to play football, so I go to class. A lot of people don't understand that. They don't want to go to class. They just want to play football."

Looking back, Clowney admitted that, when he arrived at USC, he would lump himself in with that group of people, to some degree. He swears he "gets it" now.

"I hope he does, because if he doesn't, he hurts this football team, and I don't think that's what he wants to do," Ward said.

USC's coaches don't need Clowney to be a Rhodes Scholar in the classroom, though they surely want to see him better himself in that setting. Still, barring injury, he will make a living playing in the NFL. He is 6-6 and 256 pounds, and showed flashes of dominance last season. Still, he needed help to do it, as is the case with many freshmen. Often, he simply had to rely on his athleticism and instincts.

"I was tip-toeing out there, not really knowing what I was going to do," he said. "This year, I'm learning better. I know more than I did last year already. The playbook, it was harder than I expected, but now it's pretty easy."

Clowney predicted he "can be a lot better" in 2012, which is an encouraging thought for USC.

"Clowney, to me, is as good of a player as he wants to be," said defensive line coach Brad Lawing. "He's got a lot to learn. But he has made tremendous improvement."

Between plays last year, Lawing had one of the older defensive linemen tell Clowney what to do on the next snap -- something Lawing said he hopes Clowney doesn't need this year.

"I've dealt with that my entire career," Lawing said. "If you've got an exceptional player, to have him sitting over there drinking Gatorade, to me, is not very smart. Get him on the field and have somebody help him through the series.."

Now during position meetings, Lawing is impressed with how accurately Clowney draws up his assignments when Lawing asks him to stand at the front of the room and do that on the board. It's exactly what Lawing expects from Clowney at this point in his career.

"He can verbalize what he's supposed to do," Lawing said. "If you're a second-year player, you better know our scheme because you've been in it for over a year. If I took a math class for a whole year and learned the same thing over and over and over and over, I hope I'd be able to add and subtract. He's getting there."