Sky's the limit for Jadeveon Clowney

Not long after Jadeveon Clowney arrived on South Carolina's campus last year as the most-coveted recruit in school history, his defensive line coach, Brad Lawing, posed a question that resonated like never before this season.

"I told him, 'You're going to be a first-round guy, but do you want to be the first guy?'" Lawing recounted.

"He's taken that to heart this season and put a premium on work ethic and playing hard on every play. I remind him all the time, 'How good do you want to be?' I think he's got a chance to be one of the greatest to ever play this game."

The rock-star status bestowed upon top prospects during the recruiting process is staggering in this day and age. Living up to the hype a lot of the times is next to impossible.

Clowney has been everything, and then some, that he was supposed to be. The 6-foot-6, 256-pound sophomore leads the SEC with 13 sacks this season and has 21 sacks in 24 career games.

He finished sixth this season in the Heisman Trophy balloting and is one of those rare game-changers on defense. It's not far-fetched to think that he could make a legitimate run next season at becoming the first pure defensive player to win college football's most prestigious individual award.

"There was a lot of hype when I got to South Carolina, and there's still a lot of hype," Clowney said. "But it's not about the hype. It's about what you do on the field.

"I've tried to stay humble, and I'm not going to let the hype get to me. But I feel like when I'm playing my game and am 100 percent that nobody can stop me. That's just the way I am."

Clowney wasn't 100 percent for much of this season, which is scary enough for those offensive tackles drawing the assignment of blocking him down the road. He sprained his right foot in the fifth game against Kentucky, and it nagged him the rest of the season. He sat out the next-to-last game against Wofford and then came back and torched Clemson for 4.5 sacks in the regular-season finale.

The Outback Bowl on Tuesday should be as healthy as Clowney has been since the first of the season, and his matchup with Michigan All-American offensive tackle Taylor Lewan is one of the highlights of the game.

"He moves his feet better than any tackle I've gone up against," Clowney said of the 6-foot-8, 309-pound Lewan, who's rated by ESPN's Mel Kiper as the No. 13 overall prospect in the 2013 NFL draft. "I'll have to get up on him a lot. He doesn't give up on any block."

Clowney's knowledge of the game has grown exponentially this season along with his focus on being a better tactician.

Admittedly, Clowney relied on his freakish athletic ability to get by as a freshman.

"I know a lot more about the game and was able to play faster this season," Clowney said. "I wasn't thinking as much. I just was playing.

"I'll play even faster next year."

Lawing, to his credit, hasn't been afraid to push Clowney, who's a menace even when he's not sacking the quarterback. He leads the SEC with 28 hurries and knockdowns.

"When he was a freshman, it was like pulling teeth at first to get him to work hard in practice," Lawing said. "And then in games, he took plays off. He's learned to work harder in practice. It's still not where I want him to be, but he's getting there. And in games, he's playing a lot harder.

"His intelligence about football has also improved tremendously. He's able to look at formations and look at backfield sets and understand what's getting ready to happen."

The next step is learning how to use his hands better.

"He's doing better with it," Lawing said. "His freshman year, he just wanted to stick his shoulder in there, and they held him every snap. He finally had an SEC official tell him, 'We're not going to call holding on that. You have to learn how to separate.'

"So he's still learning how to use his hands better."

Clowney made the rounds during the awards circuit earlier this month and had a chance to meet some of the other top players around the country.

One of those was Alabama All-American center Barrett Jones, who's not sure he's ever seen anybody with the kind of size, length and athleticism that Clowney possesses.

"How do you block that guy?" Jones marveled. "When you see him up close, you realize what a specimen he is."

Ellis Johnson, the newly named Auburn defensive coordinator, recruited Clowney to South Carolina when Johnson was the Gamecocks' defensive coordinator. At the time, Johnson said Clowney was the only player he'd ever recruited who wouldn't look out of place physically if he went straight from the high school practice field to an NFL practice field.

"Ellis was right," Lawing said. "He's the only one I've ever seen. John Abraham might have been close, but John wasn't big enough. He was just so fast. Jadaveon has that same kind of speed, but he had the frame of an NFL defensive end coming out of high school."

Kiper thinks Clowney would have been the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft had he been eligible to come out this year. He'll play one more season at South Carolina and then it's on to the NFL.

If Clowney improves next season as much as he did this season, he'll evoke some dizzy comparisons to some of the game's greats when they made the transition from college to the pros.

And with the NFL being such a pass-happy, high-scoring league right now, there's more of a premium than ever placed on dynamic pass-rushers.

"Clowney's a rare talent, basically to the defensive end spot what Andrew Luck and RG III were to the quarterback position," Kiper said. "These type of prospects just don't come along very often."

The NFL has always been a goal for Clowney, but he's not about to get ahead of himself, either.

There are more offensive tackles to terrorize and more to accomplish in the college game first.

"I'm just trying to be better than I was this year, and there are a lot of things I can do better," Clowney said. "I've learned to adjust to what teams are doing to me. Now, they're going to have to adjust to what I'm doing.

"There are still a lot of things I want to do before I get to the NFL, and there are a lot of things we want to do as a team. That's the main thing. We're going to keep on building here at South Carolina."