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December 12, 2012

Hood: Clowney now the face of USC

Invoking a popular political phrase, the transfer of power officially takes place at approximately 4 p.m. today.

That's when Marcus Lattimore is scheduled to hold a press conference at Williams-Brice Stadium "to discuss his future plans." Of course, we all know by now that he will declare his intentions to enter the 2013 NFL Draft even though he is still rehabbing from a second serious knee injury.

Once the magical moment takes place and Lattimore exits stage left, sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney will become the face of the Gamecock program.

And deservingly so.

Over the next 12 months, the nation will hear plenty about Clowney, who quietly finished sixth in the recent Heisman Trophy voting and should become the subject of one of the most intriguing questions of our time in college football - can a purely defensive player win the Heisman Trophy?

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o came close this year by finishing second to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. Will Clowney crash through the glass ceiling a year from now? Perhaps.

The 2013 season promises to be the Year of Clowney, both locally and nationally. Right now, he's recognized as the No. 1 prospect in the 2011 signing class. He has introduced himself to many fans with a sensational 2012 season in which he has 50 tackles, 21.5 for loss, 13 sacks and two forced fumbles with one game remaining.

Bruce Feldman of CBSSports.com asked this intriguing question in a story on Tuesday: Does Jadeveon Clowney's Heisman campaign ramp up Jan. 1? The answer is yes.

A tremendous performance against Michigan in Tampa should generate enough buzz for Clowney to last through the offseason. Te'o may have fallen short in the Heisman voting, but he captured most of the top individual defensive honors. Clowney won the Hendricks Award as the nation's best defensive end. Next year, will he add the prestigious Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Lombardi Award and Walter Camp national player of the year award to his trophy case?

If you took a vote of NFL coaches, scouts, general managers and personnel directors, Clowney would win those honors in a landslide. NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper did his part on Tuesday when, for all intents and purposes, he anointed Clowney as the No. 1 choice for the 2013 NFL draft.

In fact, he even "guaranteed" that Clowney would be the top choice.

There is one major obstacle, though, to that supposed certainty coming to fruition. As Kiper noted, Clowney, a true sophomore, isn't eligible for the NFL Draft until 2014. But the declaration should only enhance Clowney's mystique by the time August arrives.

What Kiper said about Clowney:

"If Jadeveon Clowney was in the draft, he would be No. 1 overall. But he's going back to South Carolina and hopefully he'll be the number one guy after his junior year. ... He's always been a guy that you can't handle one-on-one. Physically, he's been dominant. You could make him number-one last year and this year. That's a rare quality. He's a special player. Physically, athletically, he's incredible. Unbelievable quickness. They can't block him in practice or in a game. Every player can work on technique and just keep getting better. The accolades just keep rolling in on Jadeveon Clowney. He's a spectacular player. It's not exaggerating or overstating to say he would have been the guaranteed number-one pick overall this year if he was in this draft."

Strong words, indeed.

But Kiper is far from alone in his beliefs about Clowney.

Because he is the consensus No. 1 projected pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Clowney's every significant move next season will be analyzed, scrutinized and debated endlessly by pundits everywhere. Some will gleefully look for weaknesses and try to break him down. Others will focus on the positives and build him up.

But it's been that way since he was starring at South Pointe High School, so he should be familiar and comfortable with the process by now.

However, Clowney must realize, if he doesn't already, that with all the attention comes a responsibility to stay on the straight and narrow. Stay out of trouble (famous college football players are targets) and stay away from unscrupulous agents more than willing to compromise his eligibility in exchange for his signature on a potentially lucrative representation agreement.

In other words, the greatest threat to Clowney enjoying the greatest season by any USC player since George Rogers' Heisman Trophy campaign in 1980 will come from the outside.

As long as Clowney is able to knock aside the distractions as easily as he knocks aside opposing offensive linemen en route to the quarterback, he should be fine.

Buckle in. It's going to be a wild ride.

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