By GENE SAPAKOFF
Trust is a big thing in high-level tackle football. But from now until Jadeveon Clowney has exhausted his South Carolina eligibility, Steve Spurrier will never be sure his star defensive end is ready to play.
From now on, Clowney will never be sure the Gamecocks’ head coach has his back.
Did you see Georgia slip by much-maligned Tennessee on Saturday? No. 14 South Carolina is absolutely still in the SEC East title hunt. But win out or collapse, the Gamecocks are going to have to live with at least a little dysfunction for three months.
Spurrier was openly upset Saturday night about Clowney’s sudden decision to sit out a closer-than-expected 35-28 victory over Kentucky with sore ribs.
Spurrier backed off a bit Sunday, sort of.
“If a player’s in pain, he can’t play,” the South Carolina head coach said during his weekly teleconference. “I don’t want him to play. None of us do.”
Spurrier also put the onus of explanation on Clowney.
A little sideline therapy, please?
Jadeveon, do you understand the importance of communicating with coaches, doctors and trainers and that major college football is a slightly more collaborative process than an “I’m not playing tonight” announcement? Do you really want to slip down a few or several spots in the 2014 NFL draft? Do you want to give away millions because NFL general managers question your communication skills?
Steve, how about taking a few minutes to huddle with your marquee ESPY Award winner to get his side of things before questioning the guy before an assembled multitude of cameras and tweeters? That way you can say on Saturday night what you said on Sunday, right?
The gambling issue
Spurrier has nagged at Clowney’s effort before — after Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan won most of the Outback Bowl battles (one memorable exception when the Wolverines forgot to block No. 7) and after North Carolina tackle James Hurst won most of the 2013 season opener battles. But he never publicly questioned anything else about Clowney.
The post-Kentucky shot — “If he says he doesn’t want to play, he doesn’t have to play” — was remarkable, even for an occasionally acerbic Spurrier.
Or any head coach.
Clowney’s self-removal was odd or troubling, depending on your invested interest in the Kentucky-South Carolina game, for another reason: gambling.
Surely, Las Vegas never crossed Clowney’s mind, and no one should judge another person’s pain threshold. But the NFL takes its injury reports so seriously because the league and law enforcement officials don’t want valuable information in the hands of a few well-connected people. If college football stars can make unilateral decisions that surprise the head coach, insider knowledge of that call might come in handy. It gets juicier when a team minus its best player fails to cover a point spread.
Most Gamecock fans, however, just want to win.
Only 14 sacks
It’s not like Clowney was statistically dominant last season. He had 13 sacks — one per game — and 4½ of those came in one night (Clemson).
But what a difference he made in setting up fellow pass rushers. South Carolina had 23 sacks through five games (5-0) last season, including eight in Game 5 against Kentucky.
The Gamecocks have 14 sacks through five games (4-1), including two in Game 5 against Kentucky.
“Hopefully,” Spurrier said, Clowney will be able to play this week at Arkansas.
Ideally, the pain goes away before the distraction takes its toll on a good team.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.