By Chris Mahr
South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney broke Twitter on New Year’s Day with a titanic hit on Michigan RB Vincent Smith that will linger with football fans for the rest of the year.
It was a fitting end to a sophomore season that saw the Gamecocks’ man child of a defensive end earn First Team All-America and SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors while setting a school record with 13 sacks. Amid this star-making campaign, the speculation began. Will Clowney project to be like Lawrence Taylor? Julius Peppers? DeMarcus Ware?
All those pass-rushing stars serve as worthy bases of comparison for Clowney. But I’m not reminded of any of them when I see Clowney wreak absolute havoc in the backfield. In fact, I’m not reminded of any football player at all. When I watch Jadeveon Clowney, I find myself watching the equivalent of LeBron James. Both have physical talent I have never seen before in their respective sports.
When LeBron was first billed as “The Chosen One” as a high school junior in 2002, I remember being impressed by the myriad accomplishments Grant Wahl wrote about but also thinking with cautious pessimism that LeBron would live up to the hype, not exceed it.
Ten years and dozens of “Did you see that?” moments later, I can safely say without hyperbole that LeBron has not only exceeded the hype but also done things on a basketball court that I’ve never seen before and might never see again.
A little less than 10 years after LeBron introduced himself to America, there was Clowney dominating high school ball in South Carolina en route to being the consensus top recruit of 2011. Like LeBron, the plaudits rolled in. And again, I prevented myself from having any outsized expectations.
Like LeBron, Clowney is doing some things I’ve never seen done before. He’s not only meeting and exceeding the expectations he brought with him to Columbia, he’s doing so like it’s a matter of routine. And he’s continuing to show that, at 19, he’s far from being a finished product.
The dovetailing storyline with King James only gets stronger from here.
There is a physicality to LeBron James and Jadeveon Clowney you don’t see in any other athletes. LeBron already had an NBA-ready body when SI bestowed the “Chosen One” moniker on him, while Clowney could have physically held his own on a college field as a high school sophomore (you can’t teach being 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds).
Where James and Clowney blow away contemporaries and opponents alike is with their speed. Young men of their size aren’t supposed to move in so fleet a manner; it’s just not natural. James is a power forward more hulking than Karl Malone, yet he maintains quickness and balance more like a guard. Clowney is a physical marvel along the lines of Mario Williams and also possesses a linebacker’s quick-twitch instincts.
No wonder we’ve been treated to much of this from James…
…and much of this from Clowney.
What has been awe-inspiring with LeBron is how he has used his unprecedented physical gifts to get better through the years. They are a foundation upon which he has added even more and more layers to his game, allowing him to become perhaps the finest basketball player of his generation.
It’s too early to say that Clowney will have the same runaway success, but I for one won’t be betting against him. The manner in which he made the jump from very good to dominant over his freshman and sophomore seasons hints at a James-like trajectory to his own career.
Like James, Clowney is a “Chosen One.” He’s seemingly been hand-picked to do things on a football field we’ve never seen before. And I can’t wait to witness more.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.