Let’s take a minute and go into Antonio “Tiny” Richardson’s nightmares.
What makes a 6-foot-6, 327-pound man sweat? These 11 seconds: It’s Oct. 27, 2012. Fifty-eight minutes and 40 seconds have elapsed in South Carolina’s game against Tennessee, and the Volunteers offensive tackle has held Jadeveon Clowney to three tackles, none of which were inflicted upon his quarterback. Tennessee trails 38-35, but it is driving methodically, snapping the ball from the Gamecocks’ 19-yard line with 1:20 left in the game.
On that snap, Clowney feints inside and Richardson bites for a moment. The game is over, although it will take another nine seconds for this to become apparent. Before Richardson can adjust, barely after he has seen it, the 6-foot-6, 270-pound Clowney has gone back outside. He breezes by Richardson and swats quarterback Tyler Bray’s right arm, causing a fumble that South Carolina will recover to seal a victory.
“No lie, I watch that film at least once a week,” Richardson said. “That’s my motivation.”
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“He thinks about it every day,” said Ja’Wuan James, who plays right tackle opposite Richardson’s left tackle. “Me and him have watched that film over and over. He is working to make sure that never happens again.”
At Michigan, Taylor Lewan likely is doing the same thing, remembering that moment when your concentration slips, if only for a second, and college football’s most dynamic defensive player pounces to take advantage. In Lewan’s case, it wasn’t a missed step but a missed call. The result was the same — Clowney in the backfield in a flash, fumble, game over.
“He’s just a freak of an athlete,” Florida offensive lineman Jon Halapio said. “You, basically, have to game-plan around him. If you’re not double-teaming Clowney, you better play with good technique, you better play smart, you better play fast and you better play every down.”
At least 12 sets of offensive linemen, including the Volunteers with Richardson and James, will get one final shot at Clowney this season. It’s a challenge that is hard to envy, but that most claim to welcome.
“We’d love an opportunity to go against him,” said Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews, knowing that matchup would have to take place in the SEC championship game. “Just looking at his highlights, you can tell he’s special.”
Offensive linemen aren’t the only ones who will get a shot at Clowney. Tight ends, tailbacks and fullbacks all will be enlisted to help
“His quickness and strength is pretty unparalleled to anything else you will see,” Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch said. “You see a lot of talented guys, first-round guys, but he’s a once-in-a-lifetime type of player. Does that mean he can’t be blocked? No, but you have to be very disciplined in your technique.”
Halapio sees no reason Clowney can’t win the Heisman Trophy.
“You should play against him. You will feel the same way,” he said. “When he wants to get the job done, he’ll get the job done. If he really puts his mind to it, the sky is the limit for him.”
Clowney set South Carolina’s single-season record for sacks last season with 13. He is eight away from the Gamecocks’ career record of 29 (held by Eric Norwood), and he’s widely expected to be the No. 1 player selected in the 2014 NFL draft.
For players such as Richardson, who also could be a first-round draft pick in April, he is the ultimate final college exam — a doctoral dissertation on your readiness for “The Next Level.” In fact, James is disappointed he never has had a chance to measure himself against Clowney.
“He never came to my side in two years. I have been waiting for him to come over there,” James said. “I always tell Tiny, ‘You get to hog him and beat on him the whole day.’ Tiny is getting good off of him.”
It comes with a price, though.