CHARLOTTE — The pro football education of Jadeveon Clowney continued Sunday with an encouraging and frustrating stop at Bank of America Stadium, just a half-hour from his childhood home on Carolina Avenue in Rock Hill.
The most headline-grabbing athlete in University of South Carolina history had his best game as a member of the Houston Texans: Two unassisted tackles and two tipped passes in a 24-17 loss to the Carolina Panthers.
But that’s not saying much. The hybrid defensive end/linebacker was slowed by sports hernia recovery and other ailments and limited to four games and five tackles as a rookie in 2014, had offseason microfracture knee surgery and was held out of all four preseason games this summer. He had three tackles in a season-opening home loss to Kansas City.
The Texans have yet to get a single sack for their considerable investment, the first overall pick in the 2014 draft plus $22.2 million in guaranteed money.
It’s way too early to call Clowney, still only 22, a “bust.” There were signs Sunday that he is improving. But NFL patience is thinner than a stat sheet, and progress must continue or Clowney will get lumped in as part of the problem in Houston.
“I’m just out there trying to do what I can do for the team,” Clowney said after the game. “I did OK for the most part.”
The expectations were so high.
Clowney’s size and speed made him a Rock Hill legend before he entered South Pointe High School.
He was the consensus top recruit in the country when he signed with the Gamecocks in February of 2011, and made South Carolina’s opponents adjust strategy play to play.
He helped lead South Carolina to three straight 11-2 seasons and three bowl wins.
He never lost to Clemson and sacked Tajh Boyd 4½ times in a 2012 victory at Death Valley.
Clowney’s helmet-popping hit against Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl almost broke Twitter.
Though Clowney says the knee feels fine, the Texans are carefully increasing his work load. The goal has always been a 1-2 pass rush punch potentially unlike anything else in the NFL, Clowney and All-World defensive end J.J. Watt.
Again Sunday, Clowney suffered by comparison. Watt had four tackles, a sack, two pass deflections and two hurries.
Texans cornerback Jonathan Joseph, a 10-year veteran from South Carolina and a fellow Rock Hill native, regularly offers Clowney pep talks.
“He’s one of those rare superstar talent guys, the No. 1 pick, so there’s a lot of pressure on him,” Joseph said. “I just kind of talk to him and keep him level-headed, tell him not to get too down on himself.”
For a few snaps Sunday, Houston’s No. 90 looked like South Carolina’s old No. 7. Panthers receiver Jerricho Cotchery found out what SEC and Clemson players also learned the hard way: Clowney, if healthy and motivated, is never safely in the rear-view. He ran 25 yards around the field to chase Cotchery down after an 11-yard reception.
Much of the rest of the day, Clowney was handled by Michael Oher, the Panthers’ left tackle and subject of “The Blind Side” book and movie.
“I feel pretty comfortable about where I’m at right now,” Clowney said. “I just have to keep getting better every week.”
An 0-2 start isn’t much fun, and the trip to Charlotte was bittersweet for personal reasons, too.
A few dozen friends and family members sat together, but Clowney’s father, David “Chilli Bean” Morgan, wasn’t there. He has been in a York County jail since his Aug. 4 arrest on attempted murder charges after a shooting at a Rock Hill strip club.
“It was nice being home,” Clowney said. “I always watched (the Panthers) on TV. I always wanted to play here. Being here playing against those guys, it was good.”
Next up for the Texans is a home game against Tampa Bay and rookie quarterback Jameis Winston.
The script calls for perfect progress: First overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft gets to first overall pick in the 2015 draft for his first career sack.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff