SPARTANBURG | Some people in the Upper State still regard Mario Williams’ performance in the 2002 Shrine Bowl as the greatest by a defensive player in the history of the event.
The former N.C. State star and current Houston Texan had four sacks in North Carolina’s 28-0 win, ending the Tar Heels’ three-year losing streak after holding South Carolina to minus-35 yards rushing.
The 6-foot-6, 255-pound defensive end was unblockable that day.
Some are expecting Jadeveon Clowney, also a 6-6, 255-pound end, to have a similar impact in the 74th-annual game, which will be played Saturday (1 p.m.) at Wofford’s Gibbs Stadium.
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“I don’t know what North Carolina is doing offensively, but if they are going to drop back and pass, I’d put my money on Clowney,” South Pointe coach Bobby Carroll said. “He’s a prolific pass rusher. He just loves it. When you don’t have to worry about reads and the game is more a matter of pride than [winning a state championship], he can go out there, have fun and freelance.”
The expectations heaped upon the nation’s top prospect are weighty. However, this is probably good practice considering the scrutiny he’ll face once he makes a college decision.
If he’s able to live up to the hype, Clowney’s career could take a path that parallels the route Williams took to the NFL. After earning MVP honors in the Shrine Bowl, Williams was named an All-American for the Wolfpack after making 25.5 sacks in three seasons. He was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft.
Carroll coached numerous NFL players during his time as an assistant at Northwestern. Without hesitation he says that Clowney will join them if his career remains on track. Considering the NFL’s need for talented pass rushers, he could eventually join Williams as a top overall pick.
He has many games to play before that can happen.
It starts with Saturday’s event and January’s Under Armour All-America game in Orlando. In both events, opposing coaches will face unenviable challenge of trying to slow down his pass rush. He had 171 tackles and 31 sacks this season.
It’s tough to consistently double- and triple-team one player – something teams did to Clowney with regularity this season – in all-star games. Usually the other defensive end is a dynamic pass rusher as well.
“You have to commit about two or three to him,” North Carolina offensive coordinator Randy Long said. “But the thing is you can’t just get ready for him because they have a bunch of good ones. Obviously he’s a little more high profile, but we know what they have and their front seven is really good. We just have to pay him a little more attention.
“All-star games are tough anyway because you have to put an offense in and these guys come from different backgrounds. You can’t change up what you do too much, but you have to be aware of him.”
Though Clowney had seven tackles, three sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss and two pass breakups in the Class AAA state championship, Myrtle Beach had success against him by double-teaming him with a running back, using crack-back blocks against him and putting quarterback Everett Golson seven yards deep in the shotgun.
After spending the entire game trying to chase the elusive Golson down, Clowney was exhausted and a nonfactor in the fourth quarter.
“I think the best thing to do is put a tight end and a wingback on him and then sprint away from him,” Carroll said. “That’s not a sure bet because he runs so many plays down from behind. Myrtle Beach would put Golson so deep and then he’d drop back another three or four yards. It’s hard to get pressure like that.”
There are two factors that figure to at least slow Clowney down in the Shrine Bowl: his health and his role.
He suffered a shoulder stinger earlier this week, and though MRI results didn’t show any major damage, it remains to be seen if he’ll be playing at full speed. Even at half speed, he may be the best player on the field.
Also, South Carolina’s defensive scheme may work against his individual impact. He played end in South Pointe’s 4-3 defense, but South Carolina coach Mickey Moss has installed a 3-4 this week.
Clowney will continue to play defensive end and that figures to hamper his pass rushing abilities. Ends in 3-4 schemes are typically more responsible for occupying blockers and allowing the linebackers behind them to make the bulk of the plays.
Clowney isn’t exactly happy about his role.
“I don’t like this defense we’re in, the 3-4,” he said. “I’ve got to line up head-up with the tackle every play. That’s part of the rules, so I’ll just follow the rules. I really don’t like the defense, but I’ve got play it. I like to make plays off the edge.”