In the fourth quarter of the 2013 Outback Bowl, Michigan running back Vincent Smith ran into the wall that goes by the name of Jadeveon Clowney. The South Carolina defensive end hit Smith for a loss of eight yards, and the impact was probably equally awesome, scary and hurtful.
It was the hit of the season in the NCAA, and as I watched the replays of the collision with the helpless Smith I had only one thought in mind. Get Clowney in the NFL.
But of course, Clowney will not be in the NFL next season. Is it fair? No, absolutely not. But when has NCAA football been after doing the thing that is fair?
First, here’s the case for Clowney. After a solid freshman season (i.e. 36 tackles, including 12 for loss and eight quarterback sacks, and five forced fumbles) in 2011, which followed his being named the consensus No. 1 player in the high school class of 2011, the native of Rock Hill, S.C., recorded 54 tackles, including 13 sacks and 23.5 for a loss, and three more forced fumbles. For that, Clowney was a Heisman finalist and a unanimous All-American, and captured the 2012 Ted Hendricks Award as the best defensive end in college football. Perhaps most impressive, he was selected as the defensive player of the bedrock of defensive football in the NCAA, the SEC Conference.
Clowney will still be playing for the South Carolina Gamecocks in 2013, because he was in high school just two years ago. The NFL has a policy that prohibits players from being draft-eligible until at least three years after their high school graduation. Officially, it’s a sound policy that stops high school players from falling in the pitfall of easy money and instead gives them the chance to develop physically before they are matched up against the grown men of the NFL.
The NFL and the NCAA have a singular relationship, and it’s easy to see why. Part of the appeal of the professional league (i.e. read: NFL) is that the on-field product stays so consistent from year to year. Every NFL fan should thank college football, because the NCAA acts as a de facto minor league to the big one, the one that pays good money, on a yearly basis. Players go to the NCAA to become better players, which diminishes the risk that they do not pan out once they reach the next level. In return, the NFL reaches weird decisions from time to time, decisions that often benefit the NCAA.
During the 2010 college football season, the Ohio State Buckeyes extorted Terrelle Pryor and four teammates into participating in the 2011 Sugar Bowl. The players were to be suspended as part of the aftermath of that tattoo parlor scandal, but the suspensions wouldn’t start until after the postseason — the Sugar Bowl is a lucrative game, and no one wants to watch the reserves play. Later during the offseason, head coach Jim Tressel was dismissed, and Pryor left Ohio State because he would have been ineligible for the 2011 season. He entered the NFL Supplemental Draft, only to see that his five-game NCAA suspension would carry over to his NFL career. Why? Because, that’s why.
But Jadeveon Clowney is not Terrelle Pryor. He’s a gifted defensive end, who just very well could be drafted first overall in the upcoming NFL Draft – only, he’s not eligible.
Much like the NFL, the NBA also restricts the ability of young men to declare for a draft that they believe they are ready for. But football is different than basketball, because so few players would ever think of making the jump so early. The average high school graduate could simply not withstand the punishment that comes with a 16-game NFL season. But every so often, some players can – or rather, could. There’s Adrian Peterson, who arrived at Oklahoma and ran for 1,925 yards as a true freshman in 2004. At Georgia in 1980, Herschel Walker looked like a man among boys in his freshman season, rushing for 1,616 yards on a 5.9-yard-per-carry average. Then, well, maybe there’s Clowney too. The 20-year-old is so good that some are actually wondering whether he should sit out the 2013 season just to protect himself from any real harm because he’s already proven himself.
Why shouldn’t football players be allowed to make the jump if they truly believe that they can? The contract that they will sign in the NFL will never be guaranteed and, whether due to injury or simply to high player turnover, the average NFL career lasts only about three seasons. This all adds up to a situation where the window to earn a living is so small for football players. In the NFL, players should maximize their earning potential while they can, because they might be forever doomed if they wait. In football, an injury is always just around the corner. And every year, the NCAA asks young men to wait.
This brings me to the case of Marcus Lattimore, a teammate of Clowney with the Gamecocks. Similar to Clowney, Lattimore arrived at South Carolina with much fanfare, ranked as the No. 1 running back of his 2010 class. The native of Duncan, S.C., was named the SEC Freshman of the Year and to the All-America second team in 2010, after 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns. He followed it up with 818 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2011, but that season was cut short due to a knee injury.
Then came the 2012 season, which again ended with a knee injury in a game against the Tennessee Volunteers. Similarly to the Clowney hit, this second Lattimore injury was the most gruesome of the past college football season. I watched it once, not twice, and had only one thought: Get this man out of the NCAA.
Since, Lattimore has declared for the 2013 NFL Draft. He’s eligible, because it’s been three seasons since he was in high school. For two of those seasons, he injured a knee. Next time he’ll play football, he’ll get paid for it.