Until recently the best defensive player Larry Fedora developed a game plan against could play anywhere, and was known for creating havoc just about everywhere. That was Brian Urlacher, the longtime NFL All-Pro whom Fedora, the second-year coach at North Carolina, coached against at Air Force.
“What I remember about him,” Fedora said of Urlacher, who played at New Mexico, “(is) he lined up at free safety, he lined up at linebacker, he lined up at defensive end, he lined up at outside linebacker, he lined up at defensive tackle and he returned punts in that game.”
For a long time Urlacher was the best defensive player some coaches ever saw. But now there’s Jadeveon Clowney, the South Carolina defensive end who is entering the season as perhaps the most hyped, lauded defensive player in college football history.
Clowney has graced magazine covers and has been the subject of exhaustive TV coverage. The New York Times recently ran a 4,000-word story about the mythology surrounding him. Few people in recent weeks and months, though, have spent as much time analyzing Clowney as Fedora and his assistants
The Tar Heels and Gamecocks begin the season Thursday night at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C., where ESPN will broadcast the spectacle to a nationally-televised audience. Undoubtedly, there will be a large number of people who tune into the game to watch Clowney. And those who do will also be watching the Tar Heels, and they’ll be watching a game plan unfold that has been a long time in the making.
What exactly that is won’t be clear until after kickoff. UNC’s coaches have mostly spoken in generalities about how they plan to handle Clowney.
But a vague picture, at least, has emerged of how the Tar Heels hope to account for a player many consider to be a once-in-a-generation talent. The gist: Make Clowney uncomfortable. Double team him, when appropriate and necessary. Shift the quarterback pocket. Don’t give Clowney a chance to make game-changing plays. And hope. That’s a part of it, too - hoping that Clowney doesn’t have a chance to do what he’s been known to do.
“You try to make him uncomfortable,” Blake Anderson, the UNC offensive coordinator, said last week. “Without giving anything away, he knows that. Try to play a game that makes him less comfortable. Tempo is one way you can do that, which we do to everybody. Not just to him. So that’s no surprise.”
Fedora, Anderson and the rest of the offensive coaches have watched Clowney on film. Fedora said he’d never seen anything like it, a 6-foot-4, 274-pound defensive end who moves like an elusive running back. Anderson said Clowney “is not even close” to any defensive player he’s ever scouted.
The film provided UNC clues, but no answers. No blueprint exists for blocking Clowney, or minimizing him.
“You see kind of the typical,” Anderson said. “They help out with an extra guy, either a tight end or a back. You’ve seen guys try to move the pocket, which you’ve got to do. You can’t stay in one spot and just let him tee off on you.”
James Hurst, the UNC senior left tackle, will be most responsible for blocking Clowney. Like Clowney, Hurst is an All-American candidate. And like Clowney, Hurst has been projected as a first-round selection in the next NFL draft.
Only one player, though, has spent the summer answering an endless stream of questions about the other. Hurst laughed when asked if he’d grown tired of all the Clowney questions.
“I don’t really know if it matters if I’m tired of talking about him because I know it’s going to be a big deal,” Hurst said. “So it just keeps reminding me how big of a deal it is.”
Asked recently if he and his teammates on the offensive line had gathered recently for a Clowney-specific film session, Hurst said, “I think that’s been going on for about eight months now.”
Hurst, in particular, has spent time trying to identify Clowney’s tendencies, looking for tells and giveaways. He has mentally charted the moves Clowney likes to use, and how he maneuvers around linemen.
It has been a group effort, said Caleb Peterson, the freshman left guard who will be making his first start. Hurst, Peterson and the rest of the line understand that at some point, they all might be face-to-face against Clowney. Fedora said he’s not “naïve enough” to think Clowney will remain on one side all night.
Because of UNC’s offensive similarities with Clemson – both teams use a spread offense, and both operate at a quick pace – the Tar Heels’ coaching staff paid close attention to what Clowney did against the Tigers last season. In that game, a South Carolina victory, Clowney was at his best – 4.5 sacks and seven tackles.
“Obviously he had an unbelievable game,” said Chris Kapilovic, the UNC offensive line coach. “And when he plays hard and he’s full tilt, he’s special. He’s a lot to handle. So we’ve got to go things as coaches to help our guys out, too. We can’t go in there and just sit back there and have a drink and wait for them to get to us.”
Amid all the preparation for Clowney, though, UNC has also come to the realization that there’s only so much strategizing it can do. Clowney is the best player on the South Carolina defense, but far from the only player deserving attention. The Gamecocks return five starters from a defense that was among the best in the country.
“First of all you understand that you’re not going to shut him down,” Fedora said. “That’s part of it. He’s too good of a football player. You can’t plan for everything against Jadeveon Clowney, because you’ve got three other guys (on the defensive line) that will eat you up, too. So you have to do the best job you can with your scheme.
“You have to have ways to protect if you get into problems, and you just go from there.”
Anderson, the UNC offensive coordinator, used a basketball analogy and compared stopping Clowney to defending Michael Jordan or LeBron James. It might appear more difficult for a defensive football player to control the outcome of a game the way Jordan did - and James does - a basketball game, but Anderson said he has seen it happen.
“I think any great defensive player can take over a game,” Anderson said. “We’ve seen it happen. We hope it doesn’t happen to us. But we’ve seen it happen. I was fortunate to be around Brian Urlacher at New Mexico, and I’ve seen games where he dictated the outcome of that game. He made plays that made that game change. Clowney has that ability.”
Clowney has proven that throughout his two years with the Gamecocks, most notably the most recent time he played. “The Hit,” as Clowney’s helmet-removing tackle last season against Michigan has come to be known, is exactly the kind of play UNC believes it can avoid – namely because it resulted from a Michigan mistake.
Clean execution, then, might be UNC’s best hope against the best defensive player in the nation.