Clowney’s status uncertain

South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney smiles as he sits on the bench during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Kentucky, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)

The best player on South Carolina’s football team chatted with its most hyped superstar during the pregame walkthrough before Saturday night’s kickoff against Kentucky.

On the Williams-Brice Stadium turf, running back Mike Davis said he and Jadeveon Clowney discussed several things. They talked about the upcoming game. They talked about how their seasons were going.

Clowney never mentioned he would watch the Gamecocks’ 35-28 win over the Wildcats from the sideline, with no pads under his No. 7 jersey.

“He didn’t say nothing about not playing,” Davis said. “Throughout the whole week, he was just telling me his ribs hurt. Then he got on the field, I guess, and he didn’t feel 100 percent.”

When he returned to the locker room, Clowney told his coaches he couldn’t play. It caught Steve Spurrier off guard. Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said he was “totally surprised.”

Spurrier said protocol is for a trainer or doctor to let him know which players are unavailable because of injury. Clowney didn’t practice Thursday with what was labeled a “strained muscle around the rib area,” but he was expected to play Saturday night. Ward said as much after Thursday’s practice.

“He told me he couldn’t play, that his ribs hurt, couldn’t run,” Spurrier said. “And he said, ‘I can’t play.’ I said, ‘That’s fine, you don’t have to play.’ We’ll move on. He may not be able to play next week, I don’t know. But we’re not going to worry about it, I can assure you that.

“If he wants to play, we’ll welcome him to come play for the team — if he wants to play. If he doesn’t want to play, he doesn’t have to play. Simple as that.”

Clowney’s status moving forward is uncertain. On his teleconference Sunday, Spurrier gave no assurances Clowney would play this weekend when No. 14 South Carolina travels to Arkansas.

Spurrier does expect his star junior defensive end to return sooner than later.

“Obviously, he doesn’t have a broken leg or anything that would keep him out two to three weeks,” Spurrier said. “He has a muscle strain around the rib area. It just depends on how long it keeps him out.

“Of course, he doesn’t play every play all the time anyway. I guess he plays more than half of them, but he comes out a lot, gets a break — this, that and the other.”

It didn’t take long Saturday night for social media to be abuzz. Opinions were harsh, unkind to Clowney. Many fans, and some media members, believed Clowney’s absence showed he lacked commitment to his team. The junior has a big year ahead, entering the fall as the top prospect in the 2014 NFL draft.

Perhaps Clowney would prefer to rest now and be ready for his professional career? Most analysts believed Clowney would have been the No. 1 selection in last April’s NFL draft, had he been eligible. His impending departure at season’s end will be a surprise to no one.

Spurrier admitted Sunday he was frustrated to find out Clowney wouldn’t play just before kickoff. More notice is always preferable. As for the star defensive end’s commitment to the team, Spurrier did not answer definitively.

“You’ll have to ask him that,” Spurrier said. “I can’t speak for Jadeveon. You’ll have to ask him that. We’ll try to make him available this week sometime for (the media), OK.”

Ward said Clowney’s absence had no effect on the defense. USC struggled against Kentucky’s woeful offense, but the unit has struggled all season even with Clowney on the field.

Junior defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles had his best game with Clowney on the sideline, which was odd. Quarles finished with six tackles, two for loss, and had the Gamecocks’ only sack. Asked about Clowney’s absence, Quarles said he knew it was time for him to step up.

“We all know Jadeveon is a great player,” Quarles said. “He’s a game-changer, but I feel like this is what you come to college for. You always have somebody behind you, ready to play, ready to go. We missed him out there, but we still went out there and took care of business.

“That’s what you get recruited to go to college for. When one man goes down, the other man comes up at any position.”