Clowney, Gamecocks to test Tar Heels right away
North Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said there are plenty of strategies for containing South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney when the Tar Heels face the Gamecocks on Thursday (6 p.m., ESPN).
Teams constantly can change who blocks him and how he’s blocked. Double-team him with a tight end or running back. Move the pocket and have the quarterback make quick throws so he can’t tee off on a stationary target. Run traps and screens so that he hesitates before running into the backfield.
Yet Anderson also knows that there’s only so much you can do against someone who’s considered the best defender in college football.
“Understand that he’s going to make some plays — he’s too good not to,” Anderson said. “You didn’t shut Michael Jordan down when he played — he’s going to score some points. You don’t shut LeBron James down when he plays. (Clowney’s) that caliber of player.”
Popular opinion is that a fast-tempo, spread offense like UNC’s can help neutralize a dominant pass rusher by tiring him out. But when South Carolina matched up a year ago against Clemson, which uses that style of offense, Clowney posted a Clemson Memorial Stadium record with 4.5 sacks.
Of course, the lasting impression of Clowney was in the Outback Bowl, when he hit Michigan running back Vincent Smith so hard in the backfield that Smith lost both his helmet and the football, which Clowney scooped up.
As memorable as that was, the play against Michigan wasn’t the one that most impressed UNC coach Larry Fedora — after all, Clowney appeared to benefit from a missed blocking assignment. Instead, it was the time when an opposing running back turned the corner on a sweep and Clowney caught him 25 yards down the field.
“I've never played against a guy who is 272 pounds and runs a 4.4 (in the 40-yard dash),” Fedora said. “It's obvious on film — he plays at a different speed than other guys because he is faster than other guys.”
Compounding the problem is that Clowney’s teammates on the defensive line also are talented, including returning starter Kelcy Quarles and Winston-Salem native J.T. Surratt at tackle and senior Chaz Sutton at end.
“You can't plan for everything against Jadeveon Clowney because you've got three other guys that will beat you up, too,” Fedora said.
UNC will counter with senior left tackle James Hurst, an All-ACC preseason pick who could improve his stock dramatically with an impressive effort against Clowney.
Hurst has been bombarded with questions about Clowney ever since he decided to come back to UNC for his senior year. The fourth-year starter said he relishes the opportunity and has used the matchup as motivation during offseason workouts.
“You’re playing the best player in college football in Week 1, so I don’t have any time to waste,” Hurst said. “I can’t wait until tomorrow to do something — today is the day.”
But other than Hurst and center Russell Bodine, UNC’s other lineman are inexperienced. Left guard Caleb Peterson and right tackle Jon Heck are redshirt freshmen, while sophomore right guard Landon Turner has just four career starts.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier acknowledged Sunday that Clowney won’t always line up in one spot.
“We've got to be smart enough (that) if they've got two or three guys waiting on him, we got to get him over to the other side or up the middle or somewhere,” Spurrier said. “Hopefully, we'll have a plan to move him around.”
Regardless of who has the assignment, UNC offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic said that the key is making sure none of his players are overwhelmed by the situation.
“You just play as hard as you can, you be technically sound and do what you’ve been taught,” Kapilovic said.
As disruptive as Clowney can be, Anderson said that it’s important not to focus so much on him that they get away from what they do well offensively. The Tar Heels set school records for points and yardage a year ago, and though South Carolina will provide a bigger challenge than any team UNC faced in 2012, Anderson believes that the offense can move the ball against anyone if it executes properly.
Then again, Anderson acknowledged that Clowney can be a force no matter what UNC does to counter him.
“You’ve seen guys chip him, and he still beats them,” Anderson said. “He’s going to make his plays, so hopefully we can make him as uncomfortable as possible so we’re not on everyone’s highlight reel for the rest of the season.”