Don't blame Clowney for protecting his million-dollar NFL future

It really doesn't matter if you believe Jadeveon Clowney is jaking it. It really doesn't matter if Clowney actually is jaking it.

South Carolina's supremely talented defensive end is operating in a system that rewards him for jaking it.

That's not to disparage the kid who said Tuesday, "I haven't played my last game here." Peace has been made -- or at least spun to the media.

Clowney remains a few months removed from becoming a millionaire. Everything else at this point is secondary, including actually playing. The overriding truth: College football is getting in the way of Jadeveon Clowney. The junior is among a handful of players, ever, who perhaps could have played in the NFL as a freshman. The biggest issue now is fulfilling that three-year waiting period while avoiding a career-ending injury.

Clowney dogging it is a significantly smaller issue than having to play the game at all. I asked him about his motivation in July at the SEC media days.

I wasn't questioning it, merely pointing out his talents, so significant that they would allow him to take his final year off from football and still get drafted in the first round.

The draft experts to this point have basically confirmed it. Despite missing last week's game, despite Steve Spurrier's vague claims of malingering on the part of his star, Mel Kiper still has Clowney No. 1 overall.

"It's pretty hard to fault the player when we all know he's risking tens of millions of dollars with every single snap," said CBSSports.com draft guru Rob Rang.

It hit me Saturday when Clowney took himself out of the Kentucky game during warmups. Spurrier -- sarcasm needles sharpened -- said it was a surprise. It wasn't the first time South Carolina's coach had questioned his best player's intestinal fortitude.

The evolving narrative -- that began with Spurrier, by the way -- became that Clowney wasn't giving 100 percent, that he was protecting his body, that he wasn't going out for Ol' State U, that he's -- gasp! -- soft!

All those may be true, or not. Again, it really doesn't matter. The combine and team workouts will determine more about Clowney's NFL future than anything he can do these final eight weeks of the season.

In terms of public perception, Clowney might be the first player who became the victim of his own Heisman moment.

Does he care? He won't by May.

Clowney wouldn't be the first to use college football as a minor-league springboard to his chosen profession. That's the system. Just don't blame Clowney for gaming it. While that may annoy some purists, the system isn't going to change. The three-year waiting rule works fairly well for the overwhelming majority. It's only when the Clowneys of the world come along that college football gets in the way.

Clowney is trapped in that same kind of same purgatory as Adrian Peterson at Oklahoma and Herschel Walker at Georgia. Too good for college, too early for the NFL. Walker won a Heisman before signing with the USFL as an underclassman. Peterson exited after his three years with less controversy than Clowney, becoming a Heisman runner-up as a freshman. But there's no doubt the college game got in the way for him, too. Peterson missed seven weeks in his final season with a broken collarbone.

While he may be physically hurt and publicly disparaged, Clowney remains positioned perfectly. At this time next year he will be a millionaire. At stake is not only that first contract, but the all-important second deal four or five years down the road. That's when the really big money is available.

At this point, it's easy to see that the less football played for Clowney, the better. Someone or some persons may be in his ear about those future NFL riches. That's not only OK ... you would hope so. Clowney endangers that future by playing any more snaps with the Gamecocks. You can't blame him.

Two words: Marcus Lattimore. Clowney's former teammate blew out both knees and declared early for the draft, before losing traction in it (fourth round, 49ers, no doubt because of the injuries). He doesn't have the luxury, like Lattimore, of fleeing for that payday. Not yet.

Whatever you do, don't criticize Jadeveon Clowney. His biggest obstacles are not injury or opponents or Spurrier's digs. It's the game itself. College football is getting in the way.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
 
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