So much about Jadeveon Clowney seems impossible, like the way he came to South Carolina two years ago as the nation's consensus No. 1 recruit, yet he has somehow managed to exceed expectations.
The 6-foot-6, 256-pound sophomore defensive end, an imposing, physical force with a blur of a first step, already has established himself as the elite pass rusher in college football, taking home the Hendricks Award (top defensive end) and being named a unanimous All-American after leading the SEC with 13 sacks.
He leads the No. 11 Gamecocks against No. 19 Michigan in today's Outback Bowl, but it's easy for talk to drift to his limitless future. ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. has him pegged as a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft. And after finishing sixth in this year's Heisman Trophy balloting, Clowney is talking about a historic goal: winning the Heisman as a defensive lineman.
"That hasn't happened a lot," says teammate Byron Jerideau, a senior defensive tackle who recognizes the understatement. "He understands that. … He's not thinking about it right now. But that's his goal. If you talk to him, he'll tell you he wants to go to New York."
Asked this week in Tampa about his Heisman hopes, Clowney downplayed the comments he made at the national awards ceremonies in Orlando last month, saying his focus is simply on helping his team win.
"All the awards are out there for pretty much anybody who wants them," said Clowney, admitting that he heard that another Heisman winner, Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier, had him on his ballot. "I wouldn't mind getting it. If I don't, it's not a big deal to me. I'm going to play like I've been playing, and if it comes out that I win the Heisman, then I win the Heisman. If I don't, I don't."
Spurrier beat out Alabama and Clemson in signing the instate phenom, who had a showcase game against the Tigers, piling up 4 1/2 sacks in the Gamecocks' victory. Spurrier said the end consistently draws extra attention from opposing offenses, which leave a running back or tight end on his side as an extra buffer between Clowney and the quarterback.
"He's been our star player. He's pretty good one-on-one," Spurrier said. "I don't know what (Michigan coach Brady) Hoke's got planned for him. I guess we'll find out. We've got ways of moving him around."
Clowney will often go directly up against another elite talent in Michigan junior tackle Taylor Lewan, an All-American who could be playing his final college game today as another projected high first-round pick. His defensive linemates have confidence in Clowney being able to make plays against any level of competition.
"He has the ability to do stuff that's amazing, but he's humble," Jerideau said. "Most people who have talent like that, they're cocky and big-headed. He's a humble guy. He just makes outstanding plays. We sit there and watch film and we're like 'Wow.' His speed? You don't see a guy like that who runs a 4.6 or 4.7. It's amazing."
As much as he will try to deflect attention away from the potential of next season, ask Clowney about the history of defensive players and the Heisman, and he has done his homework. Mention the only previous winner, Michigan's Charles Woodson, who won the 1997 Heisman while playing primarily as a defensive back, and Clowney will remind you that the Wolverine starred on returns and made cameos as a receiver.
"He played both sides though," Clowney said. "It'd be pretty big if I won as a defensive player. It'd make a statement."