COLUMBIA — Since this week has been about Jadeveon Clowney and his choices, the South Carolina defensive end thinks one decision he made months ago should be remembered.
Go back to the early offseason. Immediately after The Hit, Clowney's stock as an NFL prospect was never higher. Perhaps no defensive player had ever generated that level of hype in college football history.
Clowney had options. He could have protested the NFL draft's eligibility rules. He could have skipped his junior season, saving his body for a professional career and the millions of dollars that come with it.
He decided to come back to South Carolina instead.
Now, after missing USC's win over Kentucky with a strained muscle near his ribs, Clowney's commitment to the Gamecocks is being questioned. He can't turn on ESPN, check his Twitter, log on the Internet, read a newspaper or listen to the radio without hearing the criticism. It surrounds him, all encompassing, all the time.
Clowney said he just sits back and laughs at the absurdity of it all.
“Am I fully committed? Always. Regardless of what people think,” Clowney said Tuesday evening after a practice he watched without participating. “I didn't sit out. I could've sat out. I'm not looking to sit out. I'm not that type of guy. I'm here with the team, regardless. I'm here to work with the team. When I get back healthy, they know I'm going to go out there and play and do my job, do what I've got to do to take care of business on the field.”
Clowney said he will return to the field this season. His college career is not done. There are more games to play at South Carolina, more goals to accomplish. Clowney said his status as the top prospect in the 2014 NFL draft is not weighing on his mind.
The junior gave no guarantees he'll play Saturday at Arkansas, where No. 14 South Carolina travels for a 12:21 p.m. kickoff. But Clowney will be on the plane, he said. If he's unable to play, he'll cheer his teammates from the sideline in Fayetteville — like he did last weekend in USC's win over Kentucky.
“I don't have no timetable,” Clowney said. “It's an injury. I'm going to have to wait and see how I feel. I'm doing curls and stuff, dumbbells, but it really bothers me when I try to run and turn too quick.”
Clowney hopes to return as soon as possible. He gets treatment on his ribs three times daily. Describing the injury, Clowney said he has “pulled muscle tendons” near his ribs. He said his ribs hurt after the Gamecocks' win at Central Florida, and he further injured them in practice last Wednesday. He did not practice Thursday.
Clowney said his treatment includes ice, heat and electrical stimulation.
“Anything you can think of,” he said. “We're just trying to get it back fast.”
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier was patient with his star Tuesday, something that was missing when Spurrier flippantly said Clowney didn't have to play if he didn't want to play.
Spurrier is thankful for Clowney, not bitter. The past 72 hours have been one giant misunderstanding, not the beginning of the end. That's the message Spurrier sent during his weekly news conference. Spurrier was a bit remorseful, stepping back from comments he made after Saturday night's win at Kentucky, perhaps with a better sense of priorities and context.
“We didn't handle it well, I think the whole group of us,” Spurrier said. “But let me say this about Jadeveon. If he never plays another snap here, we all should be thankful and appreciative that he came to South Carolina.
“None of us need to be upset at Jadeveon. None of us. He's played his part tremendously. I think we're 26-5 since he suited up for South Carolina. I'm all for Jadeveon and his future. When he's ready to play, we're going to put him out there.”
Spurrier, reading from a sheet of paper, spoke of Clowney's impact on his program in an opening statement that was part mea culpa, part explanation of how something seemingly minor could spiral so far out of control.
Spurrier referenced the 26 wins — including two 11-win seasons — since Clowney stepped inside Williams-Brice Stadium as a freshman. He mentioned Clowney's role in building the brand of Gamecocks football. Going forward, the coach said he has no doubt his player wants to be on the field.
“He's doing everything he can to get ready to play,” Spurrier said. “I just want to clear the air that Jadeveon, all those No. 7 jerseys and all the money he's made for our school, he's been a tremendous, important player, and we all — every Gamecock, including me, the coaches — we need to be appreciative that he chose South Carolina. He could've gone anywhere in the country, and he's a big reason that we've had those seasons. He's trying to do all he can to get ready to play.”
Spurrier said he's spoken with Clowney since Saturday, but he did not divulge details of their conversation. When asked why such a sudden shift in his stance, Spurrier said “all the information's out now.” After the Kentucky game, Spurrier said trainers realized Clowney's injury was worse than they previously thought.
The frustration was that traditional protocol was not followed before Saturday's game, not simply that Clowney did not play. After being cleared by trainers, Clowney told his coaches “right before kickoff” he would not play. Clowney said there was miscommunication between him and his coaches. He admitted he should have handled the situation differently.
Defensive line coach Deke Adams said there are no questions about Clowney's heart and desire. He's never had to worry about the All-American's psyche.
“He's a competitor. He wants to play. He wants to do things right,” Adams said. “He's a competitor, and I've known that from the day that I've met him, and I've seen it from the very beginning. You get one thing that might be looked at one way, and then people just blow it out of proportion. Then all the sudden now, this kid is not the person that people thought he was. But Jadeveon is the same person he's been from Day 1. He's a competitor, he loves to play the game, and we would love to have him back as soon as he's healthy.”