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NFL DRAFT | DEFENSIVE LINE

Jadeveon Clowney has high hopes of being No. 1

Jadeveon Clowney is exactly where he wanted to be. It’s also where many people expected him to be, a combination that doesn’t always happen.

Clowney, a defensive end who decided to skip his senior season at the University of South Carolina, is the clear favorite to be the No. 1 pick Thursday night in the first round of the NFL Draft.

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At least, that’s what he’s hoping.

“Of course. That’s one of my goals, to go No. 1,” Clowney said in March, at the NFL combine. “I came out of high school as the No. 1 player, so I want to come out of here as the No. 1 guy.”

Which team he’ll go to remains up in the air. The Houston Texans hold the No. 1 pick, and they could use it on Clowney to create one of the league’s best pass-rushing tandems, since they already have sackmaster J.J. Watt.

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Or the Texans could trade the top pick, with the Atlanta Falcons and Buffalo Bills being mentioned as teams possibly interested in moving up. Or Houston could stay at No. 1, select Clowney, then trade him for a draft pick or a player they covet.

Wherever Clowney goes, he’ll bring with him the kind of skill package that has been described in some circles as once-in-a-generation. He’s big, measuring 6 feet 5 inches and 266 pounds at the combine. He’s fast, running the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds, the best time for a defensive lineman and in the top half of this year’s running back group. He’s strong, capable of beating double teams — which he saw plenty of while playing for the Gamecocks — and making the play. He had 24 sacks in his three college seasons, and 47 tackles for loss.

He’s also explosive.

Ask anyone who has seen the hit — excuse me, The Hit — he put on Michigan running back Vincent Smith, or view it on YouTube for yourself. On that fourth-quarter play in the 2013 Outback Bowl, which almost singlehandedly made him a preseason contender for the Heisman Trophy, Clowney blew between blockers at the line of scrimmage, raced into the backfield, and met Smith at the same time he was receiving the handoff.

Clowney hit Smith with such force that Smith’s helmet popped off and flew back nearly 10 yards. The ball also popped loose and Clowney pounced on the fumble, completing one of the most impressive displays of athleticism and ferocity you’ll ever see from a defensive football player.

Which is why he’s so coveted.

“As good a natural athlete as has ever played this position. Reminds me of Bruce Smith back in his heyday,” said Mike Mayock of NBC and the NFL Network after watching Clowney’s pro day at South Carolina. “What I’m trying to say is, from God-given natural physical ability, he’s got more than anybody that ever played defensive end.”

Asked to describe his football attributes, Clowney simply said, “My biggest strength? My speed, of course. I’m a fast guy, quick, move well. I am pretty strong, also, just need to work on my pad leverage.”

There have been some rough times and a few red flags. He received two speeding tickets in December, clocked driving 110 miles an hour on the first one. The biggest on-field issue with Clowney, especially when he was a junior last season, was effort. He missed a game against Kentucky when he told his coaches shortly before kickoff that his ribs hurt, prompting South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier to say after the game, “If he wants to play, we will welcome him to come play for the team, if he wants.”

A popular theory emerged during Clowney’s junior season, when his numbers dropped significantly (he had 13 sacks and 23½ tackles for loss as an All-America sophomore, but just 3 sacks and 11½ TFL as a junior). The theory: Because he had to play one more season before he was eligible for the draft, Clowney was going to take it easy, not willing to risk an injury that might jeopardize his lofty draft status.

Asked at the combine about his work ethic, Clowney defended it, even if he conceded that he would have left for the NFL after his sophomore season if permitted.

“I believe I did work hard,” he said. “You pull out any practice tape from last season, you’ll see that. I will always be working hard.

“Coming into the next season after ‘The Hit,’ people were talking about sitting out, all of this, all of that. A lot of people expected stuff that was impossible, like 10 sacks a game, 30 tackles for loss.

“I knew that wasn’t going to happen, of course, but a lot of people expected it. I just went out there and played my game, hard and physical football.”

The Texans are keeping their first-pick intentions closely guarded.

“I’ve watched Jadeveon on film. He’s obviously a very good player, and I think he played very well this year,” said Houston head coach Bill O’Brien. “But there are a lot of good players in this draft.

“When I sit down and evaluate the players in this draft, I see a lot of talent, a lot of exciting players, guys that bring different skill sets to the table. Jadeveon’s one of those guys.”

He’s not the only defensive lineman expected to be drafted in the first round. Timmy Jernigan (Florida State), Aaron Donald (Pittsburgh), Ra’Shede Hageman (Minnesota), and Louis Nix (Notre Dame) are among the defensive tackles projected to go early; many mock drafts have the Patriots selecting one of them at No. 29.

Dee Ford, a defensive end from Auburn, could also be gone in the first round. The best pass rusher besides Clowney might be Khalil Mack, an outside linebacker from Buffalo.

They all should hear NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announce their names on the stage of Radio City Music Hall Thursday night. But nearly everyone is convinced that Clowney will be first.

“I just want to be the best, one of the greatest of all time,” said Clowney. “The NFL is just the next level.

“Coming out of high school, I said I wanted to be one of the best in college, and I think I proved that. Going to the NFL, I want to be one of the best in the NFL, go down in history as one of the best.”

Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer @globe.com.
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