Not too late for Clowney to go out right way

This is not the legacy Jadeveon Clowney wanted to leave at South Carolina.

Not even close.

But make no mistake. That legacy is teetering.

There’s not a more talented player in college football than Clowney. There’s not a defensive player in the college game more capable of changing the game as decisively and quickly as Clowney can.

As Kevin Weidl of ESPN's Scouts Inc. told me last weekend, Clowney is easily the most-schemed-against defensive player in the country. Heck, he might be the most-schemed-against defensive player of the past several years.

And right now, the only thing that supersedes the level of scheming teams are doing to take Clowney out of the game is his frustration level.

That frustration boiled over Saturday, when Clowney informed his coaches soon after arriving at Williams-Brice Stadium for the Kentucky game that he wasn't healthy enough to play.

Let’s be clear here. If any player is injured and doesn’t think he can play, he’s the only one who truly knows. So to bash Clowney for missing the game because he didn’t feel he was healthy enough to play is unfair.

It’s the way he handled it that was so disappointing to his coaches, to his teammates and to the South Carolina fans.

At the time, Clowney said it was bruised ribs. The South Carolina medical staff since has clarified the injury as a strained muscle around the rib area.

Again, no one is doubting that Clowney was hurting.

But how much treatment did he receive leading up to the game? How much time did he spend in the training room to try to get himself ready to play in the game?

That’s the real rub here, especially when the team gets to the stadium and everybody is getting dressed, and it’s only then that anybody finds out Clowney is not playing.

Normally, when a player isn't healthy enough to play on Saturday, he informs the coaching staff as early as possible that day, and in a lot of cases, will give it a go in pregame warm-ups to see how he feels. But in this case, Clowney never even dressed and dropped it on the coaches two hours before the game, when they'd been preparing all week for their best player to be a part of the game plan.

If South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier sounded peeved in the postgame news conference, you’re darned right he was.

That’s not the way the Head Ball Coach rolls. He’s not into coddling anybody and made it very clear to Clowney (both privately and publicly) that the Gamecocks would love to have him back, but they also weren’t going to stand around and mope if he spent the rest of the season on the sideline.

Clowney missed practice Thursday, but defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward brushed it off at the time as no big deal and said he expected his star defensive end to be ready for the game.

It’s not the first time Clowney has missed practice. He has said he's been plagued by several other issues this season, from bone spurs in his right foot to a stomach bug. Clowney even said after the Vanderbilt game that he would need surgery following the season for the bone spurs.

But after missing practice Thursday, Clowney was told that he probably wouldn’t start in the Kentucky game, even if he was healthy enough to play.

Two days later, he took himself out of the game.

Don’t think, either, that it went unnoticed by anybody in the program that Gamecocks senior quarterback Connor Shaw returned to play in the game -- and played extremely well -- only a week after suffering a sprained throwing shoulder that doctors initially said would keep him out two to three weeks.

Of course, Shaw’s toughness is legendary around that South Carolina program and so is his sense of team.

To be fair, Clowney has been an easy target. A modern-day Godzilla couldn’t have lived up to the expectations that spiraled out of control leading up to this season after his helmet-flying hit in the Outback Bowl a year ago and all the hype that ensued.

The debate then heated up during the offseason as to whether Clowney should skip his junior season to avoid any risk of injury and then just enter the NFL draft next April.

He admitted to me this spring that he had some people in his ear advising him to do just that, but also made it clear that he never seriously considered it.

After the way everything went down Saturday, maybe Clowney should have considered it. Unless the team picking first absolutely has to have a quarterback, Clowney still is going to be the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL draft whether he records 10 more sacks this season or no more sacks.

He’s that good, that talented and one of those rare difference-makers who plays a position that is vital in the NFL. He’s a pass-rusher, and everybody is looking for them.

Even though Clowney hasn’t racked up big numbers this season, he has played hard and played well most of the time. Nobody I’ve talked to inside the South Carolina program or in NFL scouting roles who have watched his tape remotely suggest that he has been dogging it on the field.

Teams are making him chase, chipping him with backs and double-teaming him, and the real disappointment on that South Carolina defense is that others haven’t taken advantage of it to make more plays.

Clowney is a homegrown kid who hasn’t forgotten where he came from. He has generated gobs of positive publicity for the state of South Carolina, the university and that football program.

He deserves all the millions of dollars that will be coming his way in the next seven or eight months.

But money can’t repair a legacy.