At last, it’s Clowney season

It’s finally time for Clowney season.

For the next four months or so, college football’s focus will be

locked onto Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina’s fearsome, 6-foot-6,

274-pound defensive end.

”I know he’s ready to get things going,” said Chaz Sutton, the

Gamecocks’ other defensive end. ”We all are.”

The anticipation for Clowney’s year began last New Year’s when

he dislodged the helmet of Michigan runner Vincent Smith at the

Outback Bowl, sending it flying like a champagne cork.

His final year starts Thursday night – ”Clowney we treat him

like a senior. He’s leaving,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier

says – when the sixth-ranked Gamecocks open the season against

North Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium. Clowney’s been lowkey

since the Gamecocks opened camp per Spurrier’s orders, yet has

continued pushing himself in workouts for a strong college

finish.

Spurrier glanced over Saturday at the end of workouts and saw

Clowney leading the way in wind sprints. ”So I said, `That’s a

good sign when he’s leading the pack of linemen over and back,”’

Spurrier said. ”So I think he’s ready to go and our team’s ready

to go.”

That’s very bad news for opposing quarterbacks. Clowney put up

13 sacks last year and stands eight away from the Gamecocks’

all-time mark of 29 set by Eric Norwood.

Clowney’s skills were evident in high school and he’s only

improved in college. He ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash time this

summer after getting challenged by South Carolina defensive

coordinator Lorenzo Ward to improve his conditioning so he could be

more consistent on the field. Talk to any coach or player who had

to prepare for Clowney and they don’t share Ward’s worries.

Georgia coach Mark Richt called Clowney the best football player

in the world. North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said Clowney’s the

most difficult defender he ever prepared for, even surpassing

ex-NFL star Brian Urlacher.

Clowney ”plays at a different speed than other guys because he

is faster than other guys, and he plays hard,” Fedorda said. ”I’m

trying to remember which game it was where I saw them hand the ball

off to the back on a sweep, and he broke and I think Clowney caught

him about 25 yards down the field.”

James Hurst, the Tar Heels left tackle who’ll match up against

Clowney, has spent the offseason watching film and still isn’t sure

there are any weaknesses in his game. ”I just think it’s rare to

find a guy with such speed and power,” Hurst said. ”The plays

that he does make are game changing. It’s rare that you see

that.”

Clowney continues to wow his teammates, too. He and teammate

Gerald Dixon overturned a tackling sled at one of the Gamecocks

early summer practices. At a Aug. 17 scrimmage, South Carolina

offensive lineman couldn’t keep Clowney off quarterback Connor Shaw

in two series.

”We act like we didn’t even try to block Clowney,” a

frustrated Spurrier said after the session. ”Maybe we’re afraid to

block him, I don’t know. Hopefully, he’s that good but I’ve seen

other people block him.”

Hurst and his North Carolina linemates get the first chance to

try. Tar Heels offensive coordinator Blake Anderson won’t change

his offense scheme to concentrate on Clowney and his amazing first

step. It’ll be up to everyone on the offense to do their jobs, make

plays and keep moving the ball despite the pressure Clowney’s

likely to apply.

Clowney typically makes his mark at the game’s biggest juncture.

As a freshman his sack and strip of Georgia quarterback Aaron

Murray led to a Gamecocks defensive touchdown that proved the

difference in a 45-42 victory. Last year, Clowney sacked Tyler Bray

and caused a fumble with the Vols driving for a go-ahead score late

in South Carolina’s win. And, of course, there was ”The Hit” at

the Outback Bowl where Clowney shook off a strong game-long effort

by Michigan lineman Taylor Lewan to regain the ball for the

Gamecocks on the way to victory.

Count on Clowney getting his share of sacks and tackles, too,

Anderson says.

”You didn’t shut Michael jordan down when he played,” Anderson

said. ”He was going to score some points. You don’t shut LeBron

James down when they play. So (Clowney is ) that kind of a guy,

he’s that caliber of player.”

AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard contributed to this story from

Chapel Hill, N.C.