COLUMBIA - He remembers standing on the campus quad as a freshman, grasping at big dreams and even bigger potential. The school - and much of this state - belonged to him. Soon, all of college football would follow.
Almost three years ago, Jadeveon Clowney embarked on his South Carolina career. To the superstar defensive end, it doesn't feel like so much time has passed. Clowney isn't quite ready to move on with his limitless future. He'll play his final college game when the No. 8 Gamecocks face No. 19 Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl on New Year's Day.
That hasn't stopped Clowney from reflecting on his time as the face of South Carolina's football program.
"My three years went by so fast, I really missed a lot of it," Clowney said after Tuesday's practice. "But, you know, it happens. I'm just looking forward to moving forward in life."
Clowney was asked if he got everything he'd hoped with his South Carolina experience. On the surface, it's not an easy question to answer.
The 6-6, 275-pound All-American seems primed for a remarkable pro career. Clowney's astoundingly low production his junior season - just three sacks, 10 fewer than last fall - didn't change his place as the top defensive prospect in the upcoming NFL draft. It's the reason any student comes to college, to get the best job possible. Clowney's first job out of school will be the envy of his peers. Hard to call that anything but success.
Yet, these three years haven't been easy. Far, far from it. There has been adversity and controversy, almost unparalleled scrutiny. Clowney is polarizing, evoking extreme reaction on both sides of the emotional spectrum.
These college years were happy times for Clowney, yes. He still owns his school, and much of this state. He still has a smile that will bring many endorsement opportunities in whatever city he next calls home.
The past three years were also unquestionably challenging.
"I'm still maturing, becoming an adult, becoming a young man," Clowney said. "I had to grow up fast, put it like that. I had to grow up a lot faster than what people expect. Going into the league, people expect different things, maturity. So, just from a mature factor really, that's what you have to do - mature a lot better.
"I'm 20 years old. I'm young, but I have to mature faster than what other people expect. So, basically, that's what is was - becoming a man in college."
That's the perspective of someone who's arrived at self-revelation, no matter how many critics lined his path.
South Carolina defensive line coach Deke Adams has seen Clowney mature in the lone year they've spent together. Adams marveled at Clowney's patience while facing extra blockers, his refusal to let frustrations conquer him.
No, Clowney's numbers don't reflect much growth. Behind closed doors, with the way Clowney has led his teammates this season, Adams couldn't ask for more.
"I think he's done a great job," Adams said. "You don't see many players that have been double-teamed and triple-teamed and run away from as much as he has this year, and I think he's done a great job with it. I think he's handled himself well. I think some of the things throughout the year were blown out of proportion with the way it happened. He's been great for us here, and we're happy to have had him here at South Carolina."
No instance stands out more than the whirlwind following South Carolina's win against Kentucky earlier this season. Clowney missed that game, resting with a strained muscle near his rib cage instead of playing through pain against the SEC's worst team. Immediately, there were doubts Clowney would finish the season. On television, pundits claimed he had quit on his program.
Except, of course, Clowney returned the next week. He's missed only one game since, when many of South Carolina's stars were rested against Coastal Carolina. While his sack numbers haven't risen, his impact on the game is unquestioned.
Now, Clowney has one more game to play. With an NFL future ahead, it could be hard to focus on the last football game he won't be paid to play. Clowney isn't in a rush to leave South Carolina - and the past three years - behind.
"I'm going to miss it," Clowney said.
"I'm ready for it, though. Just coming along with the team, ready to do something big, finish the season off with 11 wins again. I'm looking forward to (the bowl game)."
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