Though the start of the 2013 college football season is still nearly three months away, there is a topic for debate that could carry well into autumn.
Can South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney win the Heisman Trophy?
No full-time defensive player has won the sport's top individual award, though former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o came close last year by finishing second in the voting to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson became the only defensive player to win the Heisman in 1997, but Woodson scored touchdowns that season via reverses, receptions and punt returns.
Clowney finished sixth in last season's balloting, which preceded his jarring hit of Michigan tailback Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl.
"I voted for Clowney last year," Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said after spring practice. "I generally vote for some player on my team, because I sort of feel like I should. He could win it, but it's hard for a defensive player to do a whole lot.
"Obviously he had that big hit against Michigan, but other than that he only had four or five tackles in that game. Their offensive tackle blocked him pretty well."
As a sophomore last season, Clowney had 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks in 12 games, ranking among the top three nationally in each category. Former Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones was also in the top three and jumped to the Heisman forefront after tallying two sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception in the second game against Missouri.
Jones just as quickly disappeared from the race, however, missing games against Florida Atlantic and Kentucky due to injuries and being held in check against Tennessee and South Carolina.
"It's hard when you've got a couple of guys blocking one guy to take over a ballgame," Spurrier said.
Whether the 6-foot-6, 272-pound Clowney can embark on a Heisman run or not, he is sure to have the attention of opposing coaches this summer. The Gamecocks open their season by hosting North Carolina and then travel to Georgia, where they will be looking to notch a fourth straight win over the Bulldogs.
Clowney helped the Gamecocks hold last season's Bulldogs, who were averaging 536 yards and 48.2 points per game, to 224 yards and a lone touchdown.
"We always spend a lot of time on our first two opponents, so it will be natural this year," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "We faced him around game six last year, so we might not have sat there in the summer thinking as much about it as we'll think about it this summer. You have to figure a way to get the ball off and to run the ball successfully and to neutralize him in some way, shape or form.
"You know he's a great player and that he will make some plays. When he does, you have to overcome it. You can't let it totally ruin your day."
SEC defenders, including Jones, comprised eight of the 32 first-round selections in April's NFL draft. Paying close detail to a specific defender is not uncommon for SEC coaches in their preparation, with Clowney seeming to warrant more attention than most.
Clowney is the top projected pick in next year's draft.
"Whether you use the tight end to chip him or you use the running backs to chip him, you better have a plan," Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. "What you try and do is limit the impact a guy like that can have as much as you can through game-planning and scheme. You're never going to eliminate those kinds of players fully."
Said Missouri's Gery Pinkel: "You have to go further with him. There are a lot of great players in this league, but he's playing now at a very high level."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.