Central Florida offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe has been a football coach for more than four decades.
During his years in the ACC, Taaffe was an assistant coach at Georgia Tech, North Carolina State, Virginia and Maryland. He poured over thousands of hours of game film, coming up with schemes and searching for ways to move the football against opposing defenses.
Thinking back, Taaffe recalls two defensive players that gave him nightmares — North Carolina linebacker Lawrence Taylor and Tar Heels defensive end Julius Peppers.
After watching South Carolina for the past two weeks, you can add a third player to that list — Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
Even with an injured foot, Clowney is the best defensive player Taaffe has seen since he was at Maryland and watched Peppers terrorize quarterbacks from 1998-2001. Taylor was an outside linebacker for the Tar Heels from 1978-81, when Taaffe was an assistant coach at Virginia.
“I’ve had to game-plan for some great defensive players, but LT (Taylor) and Peppers have been head-and-shoulders the best, the most disruptive players I’ve coached against,” said Taaffe, who was the head coach at The Citadel from 1987-96. “Athletically they were just freaks of nature. I think Clowney is just as good as LT and Peppers, maybe even a little bit better. He’s a once-in-generation kind of player.”
Like Taylor and Peppers, Clowney has that rare combination of size, strength and speed. Contrary to ESPN’s recent campaign criticizing Clowney for taking plays off, the All-American also has the motor to go along with all that athletic talent, Taaffe said.
“You see a lot of talented players that can’t put it all together,” Taaffe said. “They lack that certain quality — size or speed or effort — that keeps them from being great. LT had it all and so did Peppers. Clowney has it, too. I’ve watched the film and I’ve seen him all over the field. There’s nothing wrong with his motor.
“You can take a play here or there and you highlight someone you think is not hustling, but he’s playing hard. No player is going to make every play.”
Taaffe said the normal rules of making a game plan don’t apply for players like Taylor, Peppers and Clowney. You can’t just run all your plays away from them.
“You kind of have to pick your poison,” Taaffe said. “If you pay too much attention to a player like Clowney then you open yourself up to the rest of their defensive line, which is very good.
“He’s also good enough to beat double-teams by himself. If you don’t pay attention to him, you risk having him knock someone’s head off like he did in the bowl game.”
Clowney has been slowed by a foot injury. He had a noticeable limp against Georgia and Vanderbilt. With an extra week of rest, Taaffe is certain Clowney will be moving better on Saturday against the Knights. He also expects to see Clowney lined up at different positions throughout the game.
“I think the extra week is only going to help his mobility,” Taaffe said. “They’ve had two weeks to game-plan for us, so I expect we’ll see him in some different packages. It’ll be a chess match and I’m sure we’ll have to improvise at some point during the game.”