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Monday, April 21, 2014
Updated: April 25, 10:02 AM ET
The questions Clowney can't elude

By Elizabeth Merrill
ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There is a hill, nestled in an industrial park, where Jadeveon Clowney ran up and down until his body could take no more, and then he dropped to the ground and did power push-ups. Evidence of this is gone; the footprints have been washed away by the spring rain, but fear not, Clowney was here, on the hill and in a nearby gym, working hard. Check out the barbells inside. Clowney's sweaty fingerprints were all over them. And when his training sessions were over, Clowney asked if he could do more, but he was told no, because that was too much.

Jed Hartigan, a boyish-looking stubbly-faced trainer who owns Velocity Sports Performance in Charlotte, says Clowney "trained his ass off" during their sessions in this long spring of discontent leading up to the NFL draft. While anonymous NFL execs were tearing Clowney down in various media outlets, calling him lazy and spoiled in the media, Hartigan was building him up. 

Hartigan has trained numerous professional football players, but Clowney's different. He's been called a once-in-a-generation player, a genetic freak of nature. For weeks, fans traveled for miles in their red-and-black South Carolina Gamecocks gear just to watch the ballyhooed pass-rusher jump rope. He is under heavy scrutiny, and Clowney's camp isn't leaving anything to chance.

When his agent, Bus Cook, sent him to Hartigan to help him prepare for his April 2 pro day, his instructions were precise. Clowney had to weigh 266 pounds, not a pound heavier or he might have been deemed fat and out of shape; not a pound lighter, because then the whispers would focus on how Clowney wasn't lifting enough weights.

"We wanted to make sure everything was perfect," Hartigan said, "just because of what was said about his work ethic and his conditioning. We wanted to make sure he was in phenomenal shape just to shut up the critics."

Clowney, Hartigan says, isn't an outwardly talkative guy. He likes to smile and joke around, and maybe that makes him come across as being lackadaisical. But he's prideful. Sometimes, when Clowney would be gassed, Hartigan reminded him of how many coaches would be watching him on pro day, how many cameras would be covering it live, and how embarrassing it would be if he vomited in front of them or had to quit.

"That's not going to happen," he'd say.

Jadeveon Clowney
Jadeveon Clowney runs through drills during the 2014 NFL combine in Indianapolis.

Blame it on the NFL for pushing back this year's draft two weeks, and the fact that there's nothing else to talk about until May 8. Blame South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who stirred the pot a bit in February when he called Clowney's work ethic just "OK." But maybe the only one you can blame for this whole mess is Clowney for drawing too much attention to himself.

He finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting as a 19-year-old sophomore, a rarity for a defensive player. Then there was the hit, on New Year's Day 2013, that has been replayed so many times it almost seems redundant to type. Clowney exploded into the Michigan backfield in the Outback Bowl and hit running back Vincent Smith with such force that it jarred Smith's helmet off his head. From that day on, stories about Clowney's athletic prowess flowed like sweet tea at a Carolina barbecue.

He was called the greatest defensive player since Lawrence Taylor; he was Superman and supposedly even wore a cape as a baby. He was projected as a lock for the No. 1 draft pick in 2013, but he couldn't declare because he was just two years removed from high school.

So Clowney went back to school, and had a non-superhuman year at South Carolina in which he amassed just a fraction of his sophomore statistics, and here he finds himself, surrounded by questions about motivation. Does he really love football? Has he been skating by on talent? Did he shut it down in 2013, saving his body and bank account?

Is he still worth a No. 1 pick?

"I haven't seen a concentrated lack of effort," said Charley Casserly, a former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans general manager who now works for the NFL Network. "I've seen a play here or there maybe. But I saw it the year before, too. I don't see it being a real bad issue on a team. People were double-teaming him at times, and sometimes they had three people on him. They'd run away from him.

"Sometimes, the numbers just don't come your way, even though you're playing. Especially with a defensive lineman. You can do your job, but the ball might go away more often and you may not have an opportunity to make a play."

Clowney, for his part, says he "works just as hard as anybody." He's tired of answering questions about his passion, and says the only opinions he cares about are those of his teammates. "He knows what he does," former Gamecocks defensive linemate Kelcy Quarles said. "If you know you do a good job, you don't have to worry about it. He works hard to me. He does everything I do."

In these long days before May 8, Clowney is comforted by his agent, Cook, a grizzled vet whose client list includes Brett Favre, Cam Newton and Calvin Johnson. This is the dance that goes on each spring, Cook tells his client. He reminds him that in 2012, mock drafters questioned Andrew Luck's mobility. He tells him the story of how in the days leading up to the 2011 draft, Newton was called everything from selfish to immature to phony.

The Carolina Panthers still drafted Newton No. 1 overall, proving that pre-draft chatter oftentimes doesn't mean anything inside the confines of an NFL war room.

"These teams have been putting together their boards for six months with painstaking evaluation, and obviously, there's not a lot about Clowney that they don't know," said former Green Bay Packers exec Andrew Brandt, an ESPN analyst.

"My sense is since Jan. 1 of 2013, his status is pretty set."

Jadeveon Clowney
Clowney's takedown of Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl continues to light up YouTube.

This should be easy for the Houston Texans, holders of the No. 1 pick, right? Clowney has a wingspan of nearly 7 feet -- the same as that of LeBron James. Clowney has raw, explosive power, moves with the agility of a cornerback, and ran the 40-yard dash in a jaw-dropping 4.53 seconds at the NFL combine. People close to Clowney say he was disappointed in that time, because he knows he can run a 4.50 flat. He plays defensive end, but can line up anywhere along the line. He is covered in muscle and can toss his opponents around like rag dolls. He is disruptive and had 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss in 2012.

Here's why it's not so easy: No one can truly know a 21-year-old's brain. Clowney is intelligent and polite, and can charm you with his "yes sirs" and "thank yous." But then he hands in a résumé that's incomplete. His 2013 season left questions, from his drop to three sacks, to the chatter -- from former NFL players and anonymous execs -- that he appeared unmotivated. Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp is the latest, saying on the NFL Network this week that Clowney doesn't seem to play with a sense of urgency.

Clowney dropped in mock drafts; he rose in mock drafts. He wowed with his 40-yard dash at the combine; he disappointed when he did just 21 repetitions on the 225-pound bench press.

"There's a pattern of inconsistency," said former Dallas Cowboys exec Gil Brandt, a fellow NFL Network analyst. "And these are the guys that you get fooled on. He has great talent, and you can survive with great talent and not work hard on every down in high school. But when you get to the next level, it becomes harder to do it.

"He's got all the things you need to be great. He just needs to use those tools all the time."

But in Rock Hill, S.C., there are few questions about Clowney. He is worshipped in his hometown, an old mill town 15 miles south of the North Carolina border. On a hot summer day in 2007, Clowney walked into the weight room at South Pointe High School, 14 years old, 6-3 and 200 pounds. Bobby Carroll, then the coach at South Pointe, asked Clowney if he was supposed to be there, and Clowney said yes, that his street just got rezoned and he'd be attending school there in the fall.

"I looked up in the heavens," Carroll said, "and said, 'Thank you, Lord.'"

Carroll doesn't understand the knocks on Clowney's work ethic. He says he was raised right by his mother, Josenna, who has worked at the nearby Frito Lay plant nearly half her life. Carroll says Josenna (who didn't return calls seeking comment) is "as soft as earth." She's constantly asked by folks in Rock Hill when she's going to retire, and she recently told Carroll that she probably will on May 8, the day of the draft. But Carroll could just as easily see her continuing to work.

He said her son's no slacker, either. The South Pointe Stallions used to run 150-yard gassers at practice, and the players would run with those in their position, but Clowney wanted to run with the wide receivers and the defensive backs, just to push himself. He'd come into the weight room, ask who bench-pressed the most, and Carroll would usually fib and make up a larger number. Clowney always had to top it.

He was so good he was elevated to the varsity team near the end of his freshman season, even though Carroll doesn't believe in having freshmen on varsity. Before he was promoted, Clowney scored 32 touchdowns on offense.

"I've known him for seven years," Carroll said, "and I've coached him for four years. And I've yet to ever see him be late to practice. We never had to motivate Clowney. When that ball snapped, he was 100 mph.

"There's been so much written about him, I think people got tired of being positive and they started writing negative stuff. I shoot straight from the hip. I can't say anything negative about that kid. He's one of the most wonderful human beings I've ever been around in my life."

Strait Herron, Clowney's old defensive coordinator who's now the head coach at South Pointe -- Carroll coaches at nearby York -- said a couple of NFL teams have been in town recently doing their homework on Clowney. They asked if he ever got caught cheating, and whether he had problems with teachers or girls. Herron said one official from the St. Louis Rams stopped at the Rock Hill police department and made a trip to the school office to look through his disciplinary file. South Pointe principal Al Leonard held off on releasing it until he got permission from Clowney, per federal law, but he gave the Rams his thoughts on the kid he knew, the 17-year-old who was the biggest recruit in the country, whose phone rang constantly, to the point where South Pointe's phones rang constantly. Leonard said Clowney was a "good kid" who stayed out of trouble.

Jadeveon Clowney
No matter the system, Clowney's rare skills and athleticism make him an ideal defensive centerpiece.

South Pointe ran the triple option when Clowney was there, and he was so big and wide and talented that the offense couldn't run its plays with him on the field. So the coaches would ask him to stand on the sideline, and he'd proceed to joke around with his coaches while his teammates sweated away.

Herron wondered if that's part of the reason Clowney's work habits get knocked. He was at a practice last year at the Outback Bowl and watched Spurrier pull him when Clowney exploded off the edge and was in quarterback Connor Shaw's face on back-to-back snaps.

Did it promote bad work habits for Clowney? Motivational speaker Eric Chester, who wrote the book, "Reviving Work Ethic -- A Leader's Guide to Ending Entitlement and Restoring Pride in the Workforce," said Clowney is in a no-win situation on those occasions.

"What's he supposed to be doing?" Chester said. "Drawing out the defensive game plan or studying for his geometry final? It's just a testimony to Clowney's incredible ability.

"But here's something to think about: Why are so many critics so eager to credit Clowney's physical superiority to genetics? If you examined his entire life on video, perhaps any of his natural 'gifts' have been augmented by hard work when no one was watching."

Carroll figures Clowney got some of those gifts from his father. The coach texted a photo of David Morgan, who has biceps that look as big as his son's. Morgan was arrested for robbing a check-cashing business in 1995, and spent much of Jadeveon's childhood years in prison. But he did his time, and bonded with his son. Carroll said Morgan hates the way the media focuses on his prison time. The bad stuff.

A few weeks ago, Spurrier backpedaled on his comments about Clowney's work ethic. He said he was comparing Clowney to former teammate Marcus Lattimore, which was unfair because no one works as hard as Lattimore.

Clowney was a sophomore in 2012 when Lattimore suffered a knee injury so gruesome that the YouTube video of the play has capital letters in its headline that say, "GRAPHIC FOOTAGE." Lattimore's injury came in his third season at South Carolina, when he was too young to declare for the draft.

Clowney, Carroll said, took stock in his career after watching Lattimore get hurt. Though Lattimore eventually was taken by San Francisco in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, his injury made Clowney realize how quickly an athlete can lose everything. Clowney battled injuries to his ribs and foot in 2013. In October, he approached his coaches before a game against Kentucky and said his ribs were too sore for him to play.

According to media accounts from the day, Spurrier was less than pleased. He said if Clowney "wants to play, we will welcome him to come play for the team if he wants." Spurrier later said that he was frustrated because Clowney waited so long to tell his coaches he wouldn't play.

But for much of the season, he worried about the bone spurs, the ribs and his future. His agent, Bus Cook, obviously worries about that, too. He recently said Clowney would do no more workouts for NFL teams, fearing his client might be injured. In an interview with ESPN.com, Cook said he decided to shut him down in part after watching Clemson's Brandon Thomas tear an ACL a month before the draft. Cook said it was totally his decision, not Clowney's.

Carroll, Clowney's high school coach, said it was a good move.

"Let me tell you something," he said. "You and I, if we lose our jobs, we've got a chance to get another job. Clowney's got one opportunity at wealth. He can be wealthy one way. If Clowney doesn't make it in the NFL, he wouldn't be able to go out there and make millions of dollars."


Clowney didn't vomit on his pro day April 2. He weighed 266 pounds, glided around as if he weighed 180, and was spectacular on a sweltering spring day when the temperature soared to 90 degrees. He did an interview for roughly 100 reporters who came to watch him work out. Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien was there. He said he isn't concerned about Clowney's work ethic.

But O'Brien is clearly curious about how Clowney's brain works. When a reporter asked Clowney if he deserved to be No. 1, O'Brien leaned in to listen.

"It's a long process," O'Brien said. "There's so many stages to the process. You watch the guy on film. You go to the combine. You interview the guy. You try to get a feel for a guy in as many spots as you can. That's just another part of it."

Clowney, by the way, said he deserves to be the No. 1 pick. He cares about being known as the best. When he was training with Hartigan, he ran into a number of NFL veterans and asked them questions. He didn't want to know about how he could improve his draft stock. He asked them how he could make an impact as a rookie.

"They were all kind of trying to get a feel for him," Hartigan said. "After the first day, they were like, 'Man, we really like this kid. We want to help this kid.'"

They wanted to help because they've been there and they know. In the months before the draft, even Superman is vulnerable.