COLUMBIA — South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is scary, and he knows it.
Playing against Clowney means getting hit often and getting hit hard. As he strolls to his position on the line of scrimmage, Clowney peaks into the backfield and stares the opposing quarterback right in the eye. In that moment, he can tell whether or not he's in the quarterback's head.
"You can look at a guy and tell that he's scared," Clowney said at Southeastern Conference media days in July. "If he's staring at me before the ball is snapped and he's staring at me every play before the ball is snapped, oh we got him. I tell the players that he's shook."
Clowney was ready to play in the NFL when he graduated high school in 2011, his 6-foot-6, 238-pound frame an anomaly for an 18-year old. NFL rules require a player to be three years removed from high school before entering the draft. The rule is the only reason Clowney will be on the field when No. 22 South Carolina comes to Columbia to play No. 5 Missouri.
The rule also allowed Clowney to grow. He has added nearly 40 pounds to his freakish frame. With the added weigh has come added explosiveness for Clowney, who runs the 40-yard dash in the just under 4.6 seconds. For comparison's sake, former Missouri wide receiver T.J. Moe ran the 40-yard dash in 4.74 seconds at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine.
Clowney's angry, too. He's been playing with bone spurs in his foot this season, though you wouldn't know it the way he bursts off the line of scrimmage.
Clowney is human, though. He missed South Carolina's game against Kentucky with a strained muscle near his rib area, which prompted a fury of speculation over Clowney's commitment to South Carolina. Clowney has his eyes on the NFL, critics said.
Missouri right tackle Mitch Morse doesn't see Clowney that way.
"I don't think he's a weak man," Morse said. "I think he's a very strong man, physically and mentally."
Clowney's response to the criticism has been striking. He got back onto the field for South Carolina's last two games against Arkansas and Tennessee and looked like a player focused on destroying the quarterback in front of him, rather than a player wrapped up in the hype about his future.
Clowney's next target is Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk.
Left tackle Justin Britt was in charge of blocking Clowney when the two teams played in 2012. Clowney got the best of him, collecting four tackles and 1 1/2 sacks in a 31-10 win for South Carolina.
Despite the trouble Clowney gave him a year ago, Britt insists he's not thinking about Saturday's rematch.
"Personally, I'm not thinking about it," Britt said. "As I learned throughout my years of playing college football, you play better when you're calm. It's a generic replacement every week. It's just a body trying to get to your quarterback."
Clowney is not just another body, though. His body is unique in stature and how it moves. He requires special attention, whether Missouri's offensive linemen admit it or not.
"Everybody has their plan for him, we'll try to have ours," coach Gary Pinkel said. "The problem with that team is they got a lot of good players. Their front guys are really, really good."
Every team that has played against Clowney in 2013 season has attempted to counteract what he does. Knowing that he can get into the backfield and sack the quarterback in a flash, teams have worked the quick passing game, getting the ball out of the quarterback's hands before Clowney has a chance to do any damage.
On running plays, teams generally shy away from the No. 7 garnet and black jersey in an effort to avoid the violent collisions and negative plays he's created throughout his career.
The added scheming and attention has taken a chunk out of Clowney's statistics. After 23 1/2 tackles for loss and 13 sacks in 2012, Clowney has 5 1/2 tackles for loss and 2 sacks in six games this season. Those numbers don't indicate a drop in performance, though.
"He's still an outstanding player," Morse said. "There's no doubt. The way he plays, he demands respect on the field."
Morse, who lines up on the right side of Missouri's offensive line, expects to have to block Clowney at times Saturday. After all, he doesn't just line up on one side of the line of scrimmage. Pigeonholing Clowney as a defensive end hardly seems appropriate given his ability to stand up and play linebacker or put his hand in the dirt on the interior of South Carolina's defensive line.
Quarterback-seeking missile is the appropriate term to describe Clowney. There's no telling where he will strike from or how he'll do it, either. Saturday, Mauk will be his primary target.
The redshirt freshman quarterback, making his second career start, has no choice but to trust his blockers, who have been healthy and a big part of Missouri's 7-0 start.
"They've all been there every week, and they're playing the best they ever have," Mauk said. "They're still getting better."
So when Clowney takes his spot on the defensive line and looks into the young quarterback's eyes, Mauk is certain he won't see a hint of fear.
"It's football," Mauk said. "What do you expect? He's going to hit you. You get hit every week. I have 100-percent confidence in our guys that they're going to block him and we're going to have time to get the ball to our playmakers."
Supervising editor is Erik Hall.