By Scott Hood, GamecockCentral.com
Even though South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is the overwhelming favorite to become the top pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, some league scouts will tell you that his chief flaw is the tendency to occasionally take plays off.
USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward agrees.
"That's Coach Ward too," Ward recently told reporters. "I tell him that all the time. J.D. doesn't play hard all the time and he knows that. He plays hard when he needs to. But that's where he has grown. He has matured.
"I think you'll see a different guy as far as effort every down this season."
Ward estimated Clowney played with all-out effort about 80 percent of the time last season. His target for 2013? Ninety percent.
"(One hundred percent) is totally unrealistic," Ward said. "I want it to be more than 80 (percent). If he plays hard nine out of 10 snaps, I'll be proud of him. If he plays (hard) eight out of 10 snaps, I'll just say you're doing what you did a year ago."
Ward told Clowney shortly after the conclusion of last season and again prior to summer workouts that he had to get into the best shape of his career and become an every down player.
Based on the early workouts, Clowney accomplished that goal, Ward said.
"I don't think he pushed himself enough during the season or off the field in getting enough rest (in 2012), but the great thing about him is when he has to make a play, he'll make it. But I want him to make those kinds of plays all the time. When he's in great shape, he'll do that.
Ward understands the reasons behind the avalanche of attention Clowney has garnered over the past seven months since "The Hit" in the fourth quarter of the Outback Bowl took the college football world - and YouTube - by storm.
Steve Spurrier complained on Sunday a disproportionate amount of attention has been fixated on Clowney, and too little on the other Gamecock players.
Ward, though, acknowledges Clowney deserves the coverage.
"Clowney is a player like a Michael Jordan or a LeBron James or any dominate athlete in any sport that comes along every so often," Ward said. "I remember Derrick Thomas when I played with him at Alabama. He was a great athlete. Those types of guys are special."
Thomas set a NCAA record with 27 sacks in 1988 when he finished 10th in the Heisman balloting. Could Clowney shatter his own school record of 13 sacks established a year ago and challenge Thomas' mark? He would have to average more than two sacks per week if USC doesn't reach the SEC championship game in Atlanta.
If Clowney produces at that astounding rate, Ward won't grow weary talking about him every week. However, North Carolina runs a quick-drop, rapid-fire offense similar to East Carolina, making sack opportunities could be rare for Clowney in the season opener.
"I'm not tired (of talking about him)," Ward said. "I know the boss is tired of it, but that's the boss. The young man is deserving of all the praise he is getting. But it's not going to help him this season. He has to go play."
Clowney, of course, is the foremost reason USC's defensive line is regarded by most analysts as the best in the SEC, if not the country, but he'll have help this season from a pair of All-SEC caliber defenders - defensive end Chaz Sutton and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles.
"People are going to gear their protection to Clowney, and that should leave at least two of the three remaining guys in one-on-one situations," Ward said. "We expect to win those one-on-one battles. The day is over when people will just let you run scot-free unless they blow an assignment. But if we can get people into one-on-one situations and win the battle, they have a chance to make a name for themselves."
Are Sutton and Quarles frustrated by the lack of attention afforded them with the spotlight focused squarely on Clowney? No.
"I don't know if they get overlooked. I think it's motivation to them," Ward said. "It's an opportunity for them. Chaz Sutton is going to be a really good football player here. If he doesn't have a breakout year, it will strictly be because of him. I don't think they're going to double team Chaz Sutton. They'll double-team Jadeveon Clowney and we have to do things to help them not double team him. But if we can win one-on-one battles elsewhere, that will take the pressure off Jadeveon in being double-teamed."
The season opener against North Carolina features a tantalizing matchup that will make NFL scouts drool - Clowney vs. UNC senior left tackle James Hurst.
Hurst also has a lot riding on the upcoming season, and there will be no better way to boost his draft stock than consistently keeping Clowney out of the backfield.
"I spent a couple of weeks this summer breaking down what they do on offense," Ward said. "They will have some talented football players. I understand from Coach (Deke) Adams that the left tackle is supposed to be a good football player. J.D. (Clowney) has faced a lot of good football players. The guy at Michigan was probably the best tackle he faced (in 2012) except for the guy at Tennessee (Antonio Richardson).
"He'd better expect to play against good players all year. If he does what he is supposed to do from a fundamental and technique standpoint, he has a chance to break them down. If not, they might get the best of him."
Clowney overpowered opposing offensive linemen in high school with his seemingly limitless physical abilities, but has learned that technique and fundamentals are required weapons as well at the major college level.
"Coach (Brad) Lawing did a great job with him," Ward said. "Early, Jadeveon wanted to just play off his ability and athleticism. Now I think he's bought in to what Coach Lawing taught him, and now that Coach Adams is here, he's buying in totally."
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