HOOVER, Ala. — Jadeveon Clowney sauntered from a makeshift TV studio in the Wynfrey Hotel on Tuesday but halted his stride for an instant.
The South Carolina defensive end plucked a cardboard placard bearing his likeness from an easel and glanced up at three cameramen following his path to a radio interview room at the Southeastern Conference football media days. The hulking junior grinned. Slowly, he lifted the sign in front of his face.
The three-person retinue following him chuckled, and for roughly three seconds the likely top pick in the NFL draft and potential Heisman Trophy candidate escaped the ever-fixed glance of a media horde more than 1,200 strong.
“It’s been going on since high school,” Clowney told a scrum of reporters standing five bodies deep in halo roughly an hour later. “I’m starting to get used to it now. I used to be nervous talking to people, but it doesn’t bother me no more.”
Indeed, Tuesday felt akin to the start of a farewell tour for a defensive force whose raw power and speed can inspire awe and healthy respect. Trailing Clowney for an hour as he ducked in and out of conference rooms is a peek into the factory manufacturing stardom — a process inaugurated when Clowney decleated and nearly decapitated Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl.
“They just kept showing it on ESPN over and over,” Clowney said. “I was like, ‘Well, I know it was a big hit now.’”
And the myth making hasn’t abated since.
A columnist suggested Clowney sit out the 2013 season to protect his own value. Or watching the dreadlocked mauler of quarterbacks haul in a tongue-in-cheek touchdown pass during South Carolina’s spring game. And the recent tale of how Clowney, who added 18 pounds of muscle to hit 274 on his 6-foot-6 frame, popped off a 4.46 second time in the 40-yard dash.
With scribes ringed before him, Clowney told the tale. At roughly 1 a.m., he and his roommate had wrapped up a session of playing the NCAA Football 2014 video game when Clowney made a simple declaration.
“I’m going to get up in the morning and run a 4.4 in the morning,” Clowney said. “I just know I’m going to do it.”
“What made you want to talk about that?” Clowney’s roommate asked.
“I don’t know, man,” Clowney said.
Sure enough, the next day Clowney fulfilled his prophecy, which on its face shouldn’t inspire a sense of marvel.
Hailing from Rock Hill, S.C., a suburb of Charlotte, Clowney was the nation’s consensus No. 1 recruit in the 2011 recruiting cycle. His first year at South Carolina, he notched eight sacks, earning SEC Freshman of the Year honors. A year ago, he ranked second in the nation with 13.5 sacks, including taking down Clemson’s Tahj Boyd 4.5 times, along with 23.5 tackles for loss.
“I expected myself to do big things,” Clowney said. “My goal was to come in No. 1 and leave No. 1. Everything that’s happening to me now is the greatest feeling ever. I’m blessed to be where I’m at right now.”
And Clowney bluntly said three quarterbacks are “scared” when they drop back in the pocket: Boyd, Georgia’s Aaron Murray and former Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson.
“If he’s staring at me before the ball is snapped and he’s starring at me every play before the ball is snapped, oh we got him,” Clowney said. “I tell the players that he’s shook.”
Even the presence of Clowney in the halls of a suburban Birmingham hotel has a trickle-down effect for SEC quarterbacks, who faced a line of questioning implicitly asking if they were frightened when Clowney puts his hand on the ground on right end.
“It just depends on how many questions I get asked about it,” Missouri quarterback James Franklin said. “You do, especially if he’s making plays. If you’re feeling pressure from his side, it’s going to be tough not to think about his presence because of what he brings to the table.”
And it firmly swings a klieg light onto Clowney this season, which Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier expects to be Clowney’s final tour through the SEC. Yet Spurrier, known for his barb-laden sarcasm, offered a genuine plaudit for how Clowney handles the increased scrutiny.
“Jadeveon has done an excellent job staying out of the limelight all summer,” Spurrier said. “He’s been a good teammate. He’s been there for the workouts. He’s been there doing what he’s supposed to do. He’s actually a little lighter than he was at the end of last year, I think he told me. He’s going to be ready to go.”
Clowney’s persona, quiet, laid back and with a dry sense of humor, also breeds curiosity. While he has a Twitter account and roughly 38,000 followers, Clowney has sent out only 442 tweets — more than 2,900 less than Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
If Manziel’s off the field exploits have created public relations headaches and a sense of overexposure, then scant photographic or social media evidence of Clowney’s movements only incites more interest. Take, for example, a question lobbed in a room full of radio reporters: What is the toughest challenge you’ve had this summer.
“You guys,” Clowney said.
Or how reporters ate up his anecdote on how he’s added 6 pounds to his frame.
“I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches all day,” Clowney said. “It was killing my throat. I had to drink a lot of water.”
Or the one about how he told a Michigan line what would happen after three of Clowney’s dread were yanked out during the Outback Bowl.
“If you keep pulling my hair, we’re going to have problems out here,” Clowney said.
But with time short, the demands for material to further pen the tale of Clowney’s dominance won’t abate. For one day, Clowney seemed willing to oblige. Exiting the Dorsey Room, he crossed paths with Spurrier after an interview with ESPN.com and asked simply, “How many more?”
“You keep it up, JD,” Spurrier answered. “Don’t let them get to you.”
Follow Matthew Harris on Twitter at @MHarrisAdvocate
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