ROCK HILL | South Carolina fans had waited a year for the college choice of South Pointe defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, a span of more than 541,000 minutes.
But it was likely those extra two minutes that had Gamecock fans on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
USC made the 6-foot-6, 255-pounder a priority following National Signing Day last February, and though it took longer than anybody expected, Clowney ended up where most figured he would all along, choosing USC over Clemson and Alabama on his 18th birthday Monday.
Clowney’s drama-filled recruitment ended in a fitting fashion. With fans watching a live, online feed from around the world, he was standing at the podium and ready to make his declaration. But then ESPN, which was airing the decision live, put on the brakes by cutting to a commercial.
Several awkward, anxious minutes passed by, with the future of the state’s FBS programs hanging in the balance. When it was finally time to put this marathon recruitment to end, Clowney simply said, “I’m headed to the University of South Carolina,” sliding a USC hat onto his head to the cheers of those in attendance.
This figured to be the final result for many months. In fact, the tide started to swing in the Gamecocks’ favor when they beat the Crimson Tide last fall, showing Clowney that he could compete for championships by staying at home. Clemson made a late push to land him, but USC’s recruiting efforts, which started years ago, and built-in advantages were too much for the competition.
“I chose them because I’ve got a lot of friends up there, it’s close to home and my momma can come see me play at the time,” Clowney said. “I’ll play with a couple of [former high school] teammates up there. I’ve got a couple of friends going up there this year, [including] Gerald Dixon. I want to play with them boys.”
Clowney and Dixon formed perhaps the most dominant defensive end duo in the nation last season, and now they’ll get the chance to continue their careers together. Clowney was also sold on the opportunity to reunite with former South Pointe teammates Stephon Gilmore and DeVonte Holloman, who are already important members of USC’s defense.
In the end, Clowney chose USC because it felt most comfortable. Having a built-in support system in Columbia – and another just up the road in Rock Hill – should ease his transition to the SEC, where his speed and size won’t be nearly as intimidating as it was in South Carolina’s Class AAA in 2010.
Still, he wasn’t the nation’s consensus top prospect without merit. Perhaps the best player to enter the college ranks since Adrian Peterson, Clowney will face larger-than-life expectations once he steps on campus. He didn’t shy away from them Monday, declaring that he plans to start as a true freshman this fall.
“Time will tell,” USC coach Steve Spurrier said. “Certainly he’ll have an opportunity to come in and earn a starting position just like Marcus Lattimore did last year. He’ll have that opportunity, but I think now that recruiting is over he’ll get back to playing on his basketball team, working on his grades and getting all that behind him hopefully before he’s set to arrive here.”
Spurrier said Clowney is in much better shape academically than several of USC’s other signees and fully expects him to gain initial eligibility next fall.
Ultimately, Clowney’s comfort with USC assistants Ellis Johnson, Brad Lawing and Lorenzo Ward was the difference. He and his mother had grown close with members of the Clemson coaching staff – Josenna Clowney admitted she had bonded with Tigers coach Dabo Swinney in recent weeks and liked the idea of her son playing for him – but he was always USC’s recruit to lose.
“I think they knew they were in on it early because I didn’t see them very often,” former South Pointe coach Bobby Carroll said of USC’s coaches. “You’d occasionally get a call or a text from them. I think they knew they had him long before now.”
Clowney chose the Gamecocks last Tuesday, simply walking up to his mother and passing along the news as if it wasn’t anything important. In reality, it was a decision that much of the nation was waiting to hear. Clowney had been the target of college football fans across the nation in recent weeks, most of them believing he waited beyond National Signing Day to extend the limelight that has consumed his life for much of the last year.
“It’s important that you understand that Jadeveon did not seek the national attention he is receiving,” South Pointe principal Al Leonard said in an introductory speech. “He simply sought to play each and every game, in fact, each and every play, to the best of his ability.”
Clowney collected 306 tackles and 52.5 sacks over the past two seasons.
A dynamic speed rusher with a first step perhaps as quick as any defensive end that USC has ever had, he will be expected to contribute immediately in passing situations. Though he’ll need to gain bulk and strength to become an every-down player capable of also stopping the run, Clowney has all the tools to make an early impact.
“That kid can play wherever he wants,” Carroll said. “If they want to play him at quarterback, he could do it. He’s that kind of athlete. He’s got special skills and techniques that are just absolutely indescribable.
“But, yeah, I think he’ll make his living as a pass rusher. That’s what his specialty is. He’ll work on his tackling drills, and he’s going to be an asset immediately.”
Video: Clowney picks USC
Video: Clowney comments on his decision