COLUMBIA -- The nation's top high school football recruit, Jadeveon Clowney, signed with South Carolina on Valentine's Day.
This week, with Wednesday's start of preseason camp for the Gamecocks, the defensive end prospect will step on the practice field for the first time.
"I'm ready for the season," Clowney said earlier in the month. "I'm ready to have a big season like I've been preparing for."
USC veteran defensive line coach Brad Lawing has watched Clowney for years as he recruited him, but this will be the first time he will actually have a chance to coach him on a field.
"We'll find out what he can do," said Lawing, admittedly curious about the 6-6, 250-pound Rock Hill native. "I'm very hopeful that he can be a big-time factor for us this year."
The first major lesson for Clowney will probably surprise you. A hint: It has nothing to do with his freakish physical stature.
"On defense, your eyes will either make or break you," Lawing said. "If you've got them in the wrong place, you're going to get blocked. If you've got them in the right place, you've got a starting point of where to go from."
Lawing said current Carolina Panther Eric Norwood, who left as the school's all-time sacks leader, had a terrible habit as a young player of looking into the backfield. Eventually, he figured out that he needed to focus on his key or the ball.
"He kept wondering why he was getting blocked," Lawing said. "When we got him to put his eyes where they needed to be, he became a player."
After he has a handle on that, Clowney will learn hand techniques and body positioning. Those are the fundamentals you probably did expect him to be taught during camp.
Lawing said Bobby Carroll and his
staff at South Pointe High School did a nice job with Clowney, putting him a little ahead of schedule with the building blocks of playing end. Still, there's something different about the college game. Even if you're Clowney, faster and stronger than most 18-year-olds, there's still a curve.
"We've been recruiting him since he was a sophomore," Lawing said. "I've seen him practice. I've seen him play in games. I've got a pretty good idea of what he can do, but, when you get to college from high school, you've got to slow the game down.
"Most freshmen come in, and everything's going so fast. Until they can slow the game down, it's hard to be a good player."
One prevailing thought is that Clowney's presence will inherently help the opposite end, All-SEC performer Devin Taylor, by taking pressure off him and forcing defenses to account for two quick-step athletes.
"I'm not trying to sidestep the question, but I've got to find out what he can do," Lawing said, referring to Clowney. "If he can be a tremendous rusher off the edge, a speed-rusher, then sure it would help."
Defensive head coach Ellis Johnson said earlier in the month that Clowney will have to prove he can be an every-down player, especially considering senior Melvin Ingram is currently listed as the starter.
Ideally, Lawing said he would play Clowney at end and Ingram inside as a more agile tackle.
One thing Johnson has already commended Clowney for is his toughness, a rarity in a top-flight player. He said it's the greatest asset Clowney has in terms of immediately playing a big part in the defense.
"He's an aggressive kid," Johnson said. "With all the physical skills he's got, he loves contact. For that reason, I'm going to be shocked if he doesn't make his presence felt real quick."
That's what Gamecocks fans want to hear. It's probably not what East Carolina, the opponent in the Sept. 3 opener in Charlotte, wants to hear.
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