HOOVER, Ala. – With seven straight national titles, three of the past four Heisman winners and two of the past four top overall picks in the NFL draft, the SEC just about has college football cornered at the moment.
But perhaps there’s another milestone waiting for one of the SEC’s brightest stars in 2014 – a defensive player claiming a Heisman.
South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has a chance to become the first defense-only winner of college football’s most prestigious award. Three defensive players have won – Yale’s Larry Kelly (1936), Notre Dame’s Leon Hart (1949) and Michigan’s Charles Woodson (1997), though all three played on both sides of the ball.
Clowney’s defensive dominance has put him on a short list of Heisman favorites heading into 2013. The 6-foot-6, 275-pound former top prep prospect has lived up to the hype through two seasons in Columbia with 86 tackles, 21 sacks, 33.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles. His helmet-popping hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl was one of the plays that defined the 2012 season.
He’s cut a few pounds this offseason and recently clocked a 4.4 40-yard dash.
“I’d like to see him [declare for the NFL] before our game,” Florida coach Will Muschamp joked Tuesday in front of approximately 1,200 credentialed media members at SEC Media Days. “He’s an outstanding player. He’s a guy you better account for every snap.
“He’s an explosive guy. Got great football instincts, initial quickness. He’s got power. He’s a guy that can play finesse on the edge and power. He’s a really, really good football player.”
Muschamp’s sentiments are shared almost universally from opposing players and coaches who have to play or scheme against Clowney. Tennessee found out about his game-changing potential last year when he beat left tackle Tiny Richardson for a game-clinching sack and forced fumble.
He’s a force, tough to block and a game-altering player. But a legit Heisman candidate?
It’s still somewhat of a long shot, especially with defending winner, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, coming back in 2013. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and running back Todd Gurley, Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd and Louisville quarterback Terry Bridgewater are the other strong and, perhaps, more traditional candidates.
“He’s a disruptive player that every offense has to change their blocking assignments to account for,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “He’s been a good teammate, been at all the workouts this summer.
“He’s up for all the awards and individual awards are nice, but hopefully the most important thing for him is helping us win the SEC.”
South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw, who said nobody on the Gamecocks’ own roster can block Clowney in practice, thinks his teammate winning the Heisman is an attainable goal.
“I think he’s very capable of accomplishing that,” he said. “He just has to keep playing at the intensity and the high level that he has.”
Clowney himself shrugged off the question. The relatively soft-spoken junior said he has bigger aspirations.
“The Heisman’s not a big deal to me,” he said in the middle of a throng of reporters leaning in for a question. “Winning the SEC championship’s a big deal to me. Getting drafted high’s a big deal.”
Other notes from Day 1 of SEC Media Days:
. Bear Bryant who? Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley had never heard of the legendary Alabama coach when asked about him on Tuesday.
. Muschamp had some interesting comments about the role coaches play in being responsible for their players in light of the recent arrest of former Gator Aaron Hernandez and some of the criticism former Florida coach Urban Meyer has received:
“Well, you’re 100 percent responsible. When you sign a student-athlete to come to the University of Florida, I look at his parents, guardians, whoever is important to him in his life, tell them it’s my job to be an extension of what’s already happened at home. But you’re a hundred percent responsible for the young man.
“Everything that happens – I can’t possibly know everything that happens every single night with our football team. You also can’t stick your head in the sand and pretend everything is okay either. You need to be very aware of the kind of guys your guys are hanging out with.”
. Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace (shoulder) said he will be ready to practice by the time the Rebels start fall camp. He underwent surgery this offseason and has been limited this summer.
. Spurrier said he will continue to fight for college football and basketball players to receive extra “expense money.” He’s a proponent of football players receiving approximately $300 per game to help with expenses related to families travelling and other small financial needs.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga