- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Already one of college football's biggest stars, South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney saw his fame skyrocket to near-mythical proportions in January.
The jaw-dropping, helmet-flying tackle he delivered on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl has come to be known simply as "The Hit."
Not that Clowney needed any validation as a great player, but it was one of those signature plays that announced once and for all that this guy was indeed on a different level, maybe even a different planet.
"I didn't think [Smith] was going to get up," South Carolina defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles said. "Thank God he did, but it sounded like a train wreck when he hit him.
"I've never seen anything like that in my life. Nobody can be that big, that fast and get off the ball like that."
For the record, Clowney has gotten even bigger, and he hasn't lost a step. At 6-6, he's bulked up to 276 pounds and blistered the 40-yard dash in a staggering 4.5 seconds before the start of spring practice.
Teammate and sophomore running back Brandon Wilds was there to witness it.
"It was like watching an 18-wheeler going from zero to 60 in about two seconds," Wilds marveled. "There's a lot more to come from that guy next season."
That seems to be the consensus, whether you're talking to Clowney's teammates, his coaches, NFL scouts who've been mesmerized by Clowney's freakish athletic ability since his high school days or Clowney himself.
"I left a lot of plays out there on the field last year. I mean, a lot," said Clowney, who's registered 21 sacks in 25 career games. "I probably left more plays out there than I made.
"So I've still got some things to clean up, but I'm a lot better than I was as a freshman and I'll be a lot better next year. I'm thinking the game a lot more and studying the game a lot more. It's like a chess match. You've always got to be one step ahead."
It hasn't been quite as easy for Clowney off the field, where he's attained rock-star status just about anywhere he goes in the state of South Carolina.
He jokes that he doesn't ride around with his car window down as much anymore because people recognize him and flag him down in the middle of the street.
"They'll step out in the street and say, 'Are you Clowney?' " he said. "There aren't a lot of places I can go hide anymore."
Nope, not with his flowing dreadlocks and hulking frame. And it's not just fans who want a piece of him.
After the massive wave of publicity that came with the Michigan hit, Clowney admits he sort of shut everything down and wasn't as focused as he should have been. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said Clowney missed a couple of offseason workouts that he made up, but quickly regained his edge and got back to zeroing in on what was important.
It didn't help that he kept hearing over and over that he would have been the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft had he been eligible to come out this year, which started a firestorm of debate over whether or not he should sit out the 2013 season to avoid potential injury.
Clowney said he never seriously considered doing so, although he had some fun with his teammates.
But he admitted to ESPN.com that he did have several people advising him that it might be wise for him to skip his junior season and then enter the 2014 draft.
"I had some people calling and telling me to sit out," said Clowney, who took out a $5 million insurance policy. "I'm not going to say any names, but it was people I knew, agents, a little bit of everybody. I was like, 'I ain't going to sit out a season.' I couldn't just sit out, and I wouldn't sit out. I wouldn't do that to the guys on this team.
"Yeah, it gets tough sometimes, going to college and playing football full time and knowing what's out there for you and you can't have it yet. But I didn't come here to quit. That's not me, and it's not just about me."
Then flashing his familiar smile -- and unveiling a keen sense of humor that has become legendary among his teammates -- Clowney quipped, "Plus, they wouldn't let me back in the state. They'd hate me forever in South Carolina."
With so many people tugging at Clowney from so many different directions, South Carolina officials have gone to painstaking efforts to counsel him about the dos and don'ts from an NCAA perspective.
Merton Hanks, the NFL's vice president of football operations and a former player in the league, is scheduled to come in and talk with Clowney next week.
Spurrier has been impressed with the way Clowney has matured and the way he steadied the ship after a shaky few weeks following the end of the 2012 season.
"He's a good person and a good teammate, and he knows the rules," Spurrier said. "He knows he's just got to wait until his last game is over and then he can accept anything he wants.
"He also knows if we find out that he's accepted anything that we're going to turn him in, and I'd say some of our opponents probably hope that he would take something. He's smarter than that and just has to stay away from the wrong people.
"He's got about nine more months, and then he can have it all."
Clowney, who's from Rock Hill, S.C., about an hour's drive north of Columbia, is able to get away from the glare occasionally by going home.
It's obvious that he hasn't forgotten his roots.
Clowney's voice softens when he mentions his mother, Josenna, who has worked at the same job at the Frito-Lay plant in nearby Charlotte, N.C., since she was 18.
"She's my motivation," Clowney said. "I told her she had about nine or 10 more months to work. Then it's my time to take care of her."
Clowney also makes it a point to check in with Barry Byers, the assistant sports editor at Clowney's hometown newspaper in Rock Hill, The Herald. Byers covered Clowney in high school and has been bravely battling cancer.
"You don't forget those people who've always been there for you," Clowney said.
Similarly, Clowney hasn't forgotten what his defensive coordinator, Lorenzo Ward, has been drilling into his head since the day Clowney walked onto campus as the most celebrated recruit in South Carolina football history.
"I'm just going to say it: If he doesn't want to be blocked, then he's not going to be blocked," Ward said. "I still tell him that I don't think he plays hard on every down. If he'll dedicate himself to learning the game and learning how to play the game full speed all the time, he could be the greatest to ever play this game."
Ward knows greatness when he sees it, too. He played at Alabama with the late Derrick Thomas, who holds the SEC career record with 52 sacks. Thomas set the unofficial NCAA single-season record in 1988 with 27 sacks and remains the gold standard in this league for rushing the passer.
"They were very, very similar," Ward said. "Derrick was a track guy in high school who could run 4.5. Jadeveon is bigger and thicker right now than Derrick was when he was in college. They're both freakish athletes, but I've seen Jadeveon do some things that I didn't even see Derrick Thomas do."
Even when Clowney has been relatively quiet for stretches in games, he seems to have a sixth sense about him when it comes to making game-changing plays.
His tackle and forced fumble against Michigan turned that game around, and he saved the Tennessee game by slicing through and forcing the Vols' quarterback, Tyler Bray, to fumble in the waning minutes.
Tennessee's left tackle, Antonio Richardson, did as good a job on Clowney as anybody had all season, but Clowney offered an ominous warning to the talented Richardson about midway through the third quarter.
"They had a nice game plan against me, and he's one of the best tackles I've faced," Clowney recounted. "But I told him, 'You've got to block me for four quarters. You can't just do it for three quarters.'
"I told him I was going to get him, and I got him. One play's all it took."
Clowney thinks he has a legitimate shot at winning the Heisman Trophy next season, but he wants no part of any gimmicks just to impress voters.
He plans on scoring a touchdown or two, but on defense.
"I'll do what I do, and if it's enough [to win the Heisman], then it's enough," Clowney said. "But that's not going to be what's on my mind. What's going to be on my mind is dominating on every play because I think I can. That's where I need to get to."
He'll be tuned into the NFL draft later this month, which will only serve as a reminder of what's still out there for him and what he could lose if he missteps now.
"I've seen a lot of guys get to where I'm at and then crumble and fold," Clowney said. "I just want to do my time, be a good teammate and do what I can to help us win a championship.
"The rest of it's going to be there."
3dKevin Stone, ESPN.com