INDIANAPOLIS -- The hesitation was nonexistent when Michigan offensive tackle Michael Schofield was asked about the toughest defensive player he faced during his college career.
"I played a series against (Jadeveon) Clowney, and that was probably the hardest series of my life," Schofield said at the Scouting Combine this week.
The bulk of the duty that day fell to teammate Taylor Lewan, who stayed up late at night for a month watching film to prepare for South Carolina's star defensive end in the 2013 Outback Bowl. Is Clowney the best defender the highly-regarded left tackle has faced?
"Absolutely," said Lewan.
That was the final game of Clowney's sophomore season in which he racked up 13 sacks and added an exclamation point with a vicious hit on Wolverines running back Vincent Smith that was put on a virtual endless loop by ESPN.
If Clowney had been eligible to enter the 2013 NFL Draft, there is little doubt he would have been the No. 1 overall pick. He denied reports he considered sitting out his junior year to avoid injury, but a statistically lackluster 2013 campaign concluded with a paltry three sacks to go along with burgeoning criticism about everything from his willingness to play through pain to his penchant for stepping on the gas pedal too hard.
The noise only increased leading into the combine when Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier failed to exactly endorse Clowney's work ethic.
"It was OK," Spurrier told NFL Network.
Clowney still arrived in Indianapolis as NFLDraftScout.com's top-rated prospect, and he has a very legitimate chance to be the No. 1 overall pick by the Houston Texans on May 8 if the team doesn't feel compelled to select a quarterback.
He measured in at an impressive 6-feet-5 1/4 and 266 pounds while seeking to run in the 4.4-second range in the 40-yard dash Monday. First, he met with the media, confident his dip in production was due to teams game-planning to stop him and had nothing to do with a perceived lack of effort.
"Going into last season I had a lot of high expectations of myself," said Clowney. "Things don't always happen like you plan on. I was really trying to break the (career) sack record for us for the next guys coming in. There were a lot of ups and downs but we won eleven games, were 11-2, won our bowl game, finished No. 4 in the country for the first time in South Carolina history so I was pretty excited about the season.
"I wasn't worried about my stats really. A lot of game changing went on when we played teams. Quick passes, two-on-one, opposite side runs, but that happens. I wasn't really worried about my stats, I just wanted to win."
Scouts say the film never lies, and they are pouring over hundreds of hours of game tape trying to determine if Clowney was a victim of schemes design to negate him or slumbered his way through the season. Or, they can save themselves some and talk to those who faced Clowney in 2013.
"I don't think he took a play off and, if he did, I didn't see it," said Missouri offensive tackle Justin Britt.
Along with judging his personality, Houston must determine if Clowney is a good fit in new defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel's 3-4 scheme after playing primarily with his hand on the ground while at South Carolina. Head coach Bill O'Brien didn't appear concerned about a potential scheme mismatch, describing what the Texans will install as a "very multiple" and cautioning against trying to put players in a box about whether they will be a fit or not.
If the Texans pass on Clowney with the No. 1 overall pick, the St. Louis Rams can expect to hear their phone ring off the hook with potential trade offers for the second selection, while the Jacksonville Jaguars or Cleveland Browns may just have the draft's most physically gifted player fall into their lap at No. 3 or No. 4 overall.
"One thing we look at is, sometimes as a coaching staff, you may choose to attack a player but we choose to look at the positives and say, 'What traits do we like?'" said Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley. "Maybe his junior year didn't completely go the way he wanted. Everybody is going to have struggles at times; it's about how they adjust to those and how they capture them and get better from those times."
Those are the questions Clowney can expect to field by the bushel during private team interviews. It's an inexact science, to be sure, but the goal is to measure Clowney's dedication to his craft and his passion to compete down in and down out.
"Oh man, I am overjoyed," Clowney said of the feeling of playing football. "I've been playing this game since I was 5 years old, a long time, and my mom, I play for her also. She loves the game just as much as me. I go out there and have fun with it. She loves to see me play and I love to play the game so I am going to continue to play this game."