Jadeveon Clowney’s freakish body created an athletic wonder. A 6-foot-5, 266-pound defender who could sprint 40 yards in 4.53 seconds, vertically leap 37.5 inches and jump 124 inches forward once his South Carolina feet left the ground.
Clowney became a national sensation as a Gamecock, flying through the Internet with “The Hit,” then earning overwhelming praise as a once-in-a-generation athlete who could change a game with one tackle – and maybe the NFL once he was drafted.
The Houston Texans selected the Rock Hill native with the No. 1 pick of this year’s draft. Then Clowney’s freakish body suddenly betrayed him.
There was a groin pull, then a sports hernia, then a concussion. Before the Texans and first-year coach Bill O’Brien reached Week 1, Clowney was a question mark, with a year spent being shadowed by work-ethic queries compounded by his preseason struggles as a pro. By the time the Texans downed Washington on Sept. 7, Clowney’s once-dreamlike rookie season was becoming a physical nightmare.
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He tore his meniscus chasing down Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III. When Clowney finally returned, he was shaken and not himself, seldom reaching the passer and never approaching his dominant collegiate form. In four abbreviated games (two starts), Clowney recorded seven tackles, no sacks and took 143 defensive snaps.
“My knee swelled up on me a little bit, and I’m trying to get it back to the way it was before,” Clowney said Nov. 27. “It’s bothering me a lot right now. I’m in a lot of pain. It’s been bothering me off and on the whole season.”
The former South Carolina star barely made a dent for a Texans team that is eyeing a postseason berth. The Texans shut Clowney down for good Dec. 4. Season-ending microfracture surgery soon followed.
The No. 1 pick was a rookie bust. Now, the fun-loving 21-year-old must endure a strenuous rehabilitation period that could last up to nine months, testing his mind and body like never before.
“With any young player, you’re disappointed when you hear the news that you can’t play,” O’Brien said. “I mean, this guy’s a football player. That’s what he is. He wants to play football. He wants to be good, and so I think he was disappointed right off the bat. I think he understands what he has to do and why this is necessary.”
Quarterback Carson Palmer, the No. 1 pick in 2003, missed his rookie year because of injury, then rebounded to become a two-time Pro Bowler. Yet, Clowney has more in common with defensive tackle Steve Emtman, who was the No. 1 pick in 1992 out of Washington but played in nine games that year for Indianapolis and started 19 contests before exiting the league after six seasons.
Clowney should compete for a starting spot with the Texans next season, and he’ll have the rest of his career to prove he isn’t a true bust. But he was supposed to pair with star defensive end J.J. Watt to power the team’s front seven in 2014. Watt is an NFL MVP candidate and should win his second defensive MVP in three seasons. Clowney couldn’t stay on the field next to No. 99.
“He’s a tough kid. … He really wanted to play. He wanted to be out there for his teammates,” O’Brien said. “At the end of the day, he wasn’t able to do the things that he really wants to do, to be the player that he can be.”
Clowney entered the draft surrounded by doubt and was often criticized during his junior year with the Gamecocks. Still, the Texans chose Clowney while passing on linebacker Khalil Mack (Oakland) and multiple quarterbacks – including Blake Bortles, who went No. 3 to Jacksonville – in a draft dominated by wide receivers and surrounded by Johnny Manziel hype.
Once Clowney joined the Texans, he struggled to make the transition from defensive end to weakside outside linebacker and seldom displayed the aggressive power he was known for at South Carolina. The first sign of Clowney’s rookie struggles appeared before training camp when he underwent sports hernia surgery June 12. Clowney then suffered a concussion during the Texans’ weeklong preseason stay in Denver and didn’t play in an Aug. 23 contest against the Broncos.
Still, O’Brien strongly stood up for Clowney, saying the No. 1 pick simply had bad luck during his rookie year.
“I want to be real clear with this (about) him, as it relates to us here, to the Houston Texans: We think very highly of him,” O’Brien said. “We know that he’s going to be a really good player. And he’s been unlucky.
“I don’t really care about what anybody thinks about what I say in that realm of being unlucky or lucky. I’m just telling you … (the injuries) are not easy in your rookie year. And he’s in there every day working extremely hard to get better.”
Indianapolis Colts tackle Gosder Cherilus believes he knows the limitations that microfracture surgery will place on Clowney
“He’s screwed,” Cherilus told the Indianapolis Star. “His game is all about explosion. That’s a problem. … I’m just being honest.”
He added: “He has to be fully, fully committed. … You’re going to have to learn how to deal with it. And you have to be extremely disciplined. You have to do all the little things. Man, I’m telling you – it’s hard.”
Texans general manager Rick Smith said the team hopes Clowney will be back for Week 1 of the 2015 season.
“It’s a pretty extensive rehab period. … We’re all disappointed,” Smith said. “But injuries are part of the NFL. Nobody’s more disappointed than he is, because he had some lofty goals for his rookie season.”
Clowney hasn’t spoken with the media since his surgery.
Former South Carolina teammate D.J. Swearinger campaigned heavily during the draft process for the Texans to select his friend. After Clowney was lost for the year, the safety was left to stand up for No. 90 and support a No. 1 pick whose body betrayed him in 2014.
“It was a crazy situation,” Swearinger said. “That’s tough luck to have to go through it at the start of your career. He needs to stay prayed up and do what he has to do to get the knee back right and get back on the field in the near future. He has to stay positive about everything.”