COLUMBIA — On his first day coaching one of college football’s best players in recent memory, Deke Adams did something that his new boss loved to see. He taught.
The first time Adams put his defensive linemen through a drill meant to emphasize hip rotation, they didn’t quite get it. So when the Gamecocks entered the special teams portion of Tuesday’s practice, the first of the spring, Adams brought his players back together, with the lower-profile guys standing alongside All-American end Jadeveon Clowney.
There were four red tackling dummies in a straight line in front of them, and a fifth at the end, slightly askew from the fourth. The object of the drill was to weave through the dummies, smacking each along the way, while shuffling the feet and swiveling the hips.
After Clowney tried it with flawed technique, Adams stepped in and demonstrated the proper footwork. Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward noticed from afar and, in that moment, felt good about Adams, 41, who he hired to replace Brad Lawing, 55, as USC’s defensive line coach, after Lawing left for a similar job at Florida in January.
“That’s the sign, to me, of a good coach,” Ward said. “You do what a player can’t do. You work on it. That’s a good start for me. Coach Lawing is a great teacher. He was a great technique and fundamental guy. I just think Deke is closer to the players’ age, and he’ll relate more to them.”
Tuesday was not just the start of Adams’ USC career, but also, essentially, of Clowney’s third and final college season. He is the likely No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said he could be the best defensive end to enter the NFL since Bruce Smith went No. 1 in 1985 — eight years before Clowney was born.
Clowney anchors a defense that ranked third and 11th nationally in 2011 and 2012 in yards allowed per game. With USC having to replace running back Marcus Lattimore, a similar loss to receiver Alshon Jeffery turning pro after 2011, the Gamecocks will again count on their defense.
Really, this spring matters far more for USC’s linebackers group, which lost all three starters, than it does for Clowney. USC head coach Steve Spurrier never lets his older players participate in spring scrimmages. Clowney didn’t scrimmage last spring and won’t this spring, Ward said. (USC did not make Clowney available for interviews after Tuesday’s practice.)
So all Clowney will get this spring is the rote drill work of practices. Though he will soon earn millions of dollars playing football, it does not seem like a job for him.
During a pass rush drill Tuesday that focused on using a hand slap to an offensive lineman’s shoulder, Clowney played the role of offensive lineman. Sophomore end Gerald Dixon whacked Clowney on the shoulder, as he was supposed to. Clowney fell away and grabbed his face, pretending Dixon hit him there. Then he turned back to Dixon and smiled. They both laughed.
Clowney looks like a hulking man, and has for years, but he still embraces a boyish silliness. He turned 20 on Valentine’s Day, and about a month before that, Ward met with Clowney and his parents to discuss “what he needed to do” in his final season, Ward said. Ward did not hesitate Tuesday when asked what still remains for Clowney to accomplish before heading to the NFL.
“If I can get him to play 100 percent every time, then he might be unstoppable,” Ward said. “If he wants to be the No. 1 player picked in the draft, he’s got to play harder. He understands that. Not that he takes (plays) off. Clowney is a player who knows that if he wants to make a play, it’s obvious he’s shown that he can do that. And I want him to make a play every time, so I want him to give me that effort. I want him to play that way all the time.”