Jadeveon Clowney will play his first college football game on Saturday.
Undoubtedly, the freshman defensive end is excited about performing in front of family and friends a few miles from his Rock Hill home, and has high expectations for himself and the entire South Carolina defense.
Brad Lawing, his position coach, is eager to see if Clowney acts like a typical freshman appearing in his very first game with 60,000-plus fans in the stands.
"Sure. I'm afraid he's going to get out and start doing this (looking around the stadium)," Lawing said when asked if he had any concerns about Clowney's debut. "They all do, every freshman I've coached. That's just part of it. He'll get over that. But for me to stand here and say I'm not worried about a freshman, that wouldn't be very smart of me to say, because I am."
While Clowney is probably comfortable at this point with the constant media attention and accolades from the public, he's still a freshman until further notice, so first-game jitters come with the territory.
"I like to use the term, 'Whistling through the graveyard,'" Lawing said. "Some kids get so much media attention that they get here to camp and they say, 'I have to be all this.' They come to practice and, 'I'm not scared, I'm not scared.' But in reality they are. He's a freshman. I can't imagine being that age and having all the attention he's had over the last year or so.
"It's hard. He'll be fine. But I don't want him to forget what to do when he gets out there. I want to make sure he's where he's supposed to be and doing the right things. He'll make mistakes because he's a freshman. They all do. We just have to live with it, correct it and move on and make sure it doesn't happen again."
Clowney returned to practice for the first time since the middle of last week when he suffered a minor twisted ankle in practice, an injury that was aggravated by bone spurs. But Clowney said on Monday that he was ready to play and that the spurs, which date back to his high school days, didn't bother him.
"The trainers take good care of you," Clowney said. "I just have to keep it going."
As expected, Clowney was listed as the backup defensive end behind fifth-year senior Melvin Ingram on the official depth chart released on Tuesday. But, as they say, the highly-touted freshman will play early and often.
He expects to spend his opening night chasing East Carolina quarterback Dominique Davis and hopefully compile a sack or two and a few tackles along the way.
"They throw the ball very quick," Clowney said. "They get it out in two or three seconds. They're pretty good on screens. You have to run to the ball. Our defensive linemen can make a lot of plays on the screen. So, even if you're on the backside, you have to keep running and don't stop.
"We're playing against a scrambling quarterback this week. We can't go inside. We have to stay to the outside and run them to the inside. He can hurt you from the outside. We'll be staying outside most of the game. He's pretty fast. He has good feet."
Because of ECU's offensive system, Clowney could find himself dropping into coverage to help protect the flat area of the field. It's a role Clowney should fill admirably with his speed and athleticism.
"It doesn't really matter," Clowney said. "Whatever he tells me to do, I'll do it. I'm been excited for the first game for two weeks. I'll be ready."
Clowney admitted he might feel a hint of nervousness until the first play "is out of the way."
The biggest challenge Clowney will face is ignoring the excitement he feels from playing his first game and calmly executing his assignment each play he is on the field. That won't be easy, because as Lawing is fond of saying, it isn't Football 101. USC runs a complex scheme that requires precision. Very little freelancing is required.
"We're going to be multiple in what we do. We do a lot of stuff," Lawing said. "We have over 100 years of coaching experience in that defensive meeting room. We have a lot of different ideas. When it all comes down to it, it's up to Ellis (Johnson). But he is very open to the way he does things. That's one reason he is so highly thought of as a coordinator. He'll do things to try to stop the other team's offense rather than staying generic."
One thing Lawing isn't looking for is a lot of sacks from Clowney or anybody else on the USC defensive line. East Carolina runs a quick-throw offense in which Davis takes two or three steps and then releases the ball. The result? Very few sacks and a lot of screens and short passes that USC must find a way to defend.
"Hopefully, we knock some balls down and get in his face and hurry him a little bit," Lawing said. "He's hard to get to because of what they do. The ball is out of his hands quick. We have to do a good job of getting some guys freed up in our pass-rush. We have to affect the quarterback. That's our whole deal. If we can get him on the ground, that's all be great. But nobody has done that very much."
Although most analysts are focused on USC's efforts to stop East Carolina's passing game, Lawing said it was essential for the Gamecocks to prevent the Pirates from running the football and make them one-dimensional. In short, a quick-paced ECU offense able to throw and run the ball could be dangerous.
"We can not let them run the football," Lawing said. "If we let them run the football and not affect the quarterback, that's not a good evening for us."
In order to prepare his players for the frantic pace, Lawing has utilized a high volume of players in practice over the last several days and will continue to do so for the rest of this week. Clearly, the depth along the defensive front should be a major advantage for the Gamecocks.
"We've been rotating a lot of groups through in practice this week and I'm going to see how it feels come Saturday," Lawing said. "We have some good players that have worked hard. I've got an older group of guys that are battle-tested. And then I have that next group that isn't. They've done a good job bringing them along. They've showed them that this how you practice, how you get better and how you improve. Hopefully, they'll play well on Saturday."
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