Right now, #1 overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney is waiting to return from his sports hernia surgery. Texans fans are waiting to see him sack an NFL quarterback. In the interim, Clowney has some work to do. Like every other great college player, his natural ability will not carry him as far in the NFL as it did when he was playing against boys. He’ll have to refine his technique and improve the mental aspects of his game if he wants to excel at the next level. Some guys figure it out early, some guys never do.
He has the advantage of having a position coach who figured it out himself. Mike Vrabel was an excellent outside linebacker on the great New England teams of the 2000’s. He was known as a fierce competitor and a student of the game. We’ve seen already in the spring practices that Vrabel is a passionate coach. One person who won’t be surprised by that is Bill Belichick.
When Vrabel retired from playing in 2011, Belichick said, “Mike Vrabel is as well-suited for coaching as any player I have ever coached. He has a tremendous feel for people, players, coaches and what his team needs regardless of the situation. He is outstanding in his knowledge of the game, which contributed to his excellence as a player. I have no doubt Mike will develop tough, intelligent, fundamentally sound winners.”
I’ve watched ten complete college games of Clowney. Amid the plays where he looks like an outright prodigy, I also found some weak spots. This is to be expected, of course. He needs to work on his pad level, improve on his play recognition, and do a better job taking on run blocks. I do not have a single concern about his motor. He had some issues with illness and injury, but on the whole the kid plays hard. We’ll take a look at some of his problem areas, but we’ll also show the plays where he does it right. Please keep in mind that this is not meant to be a harsh critique. Every rookie comes into the league raw by professional standards, and Clowney is no exception.
Point of emphasis: Pad level and body position.
These are common problems among college defensive linemen. They play too high, and they put themselves in bad situations with their hips and shoulders. The college kid that plays with good knee bend in a sound football position is more the exception than the rule, even at the great programs. One reason is that they simply can get away with it. Much of the time this takes care of itself in the NFL after a guy gets pancaked a few times. They also need to learn to keep their hips and shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. There is a time to “flip your hips”, but only for brief moments. Clowney was very effective with his inside moves, but at times he turns his body perpendicular to the line, which allows offensive linemen to turn his ribs into a punching bag and wash him down the line.
We’ll watch three examples from the Clemson game here. In the first example, he takes himself out of the play by standing straight up and giving up his chest as he tries an ill advised and poorly executed swim move to the inside. This tendency to swim at inopportune moments is something else Vrabel will be working on with Clowney. Offensive linemen relish the chance to gore a guy who gives up his ribs and chest.
In the 2nd half, Jadeveon makes a better inside move. He’s still taller than we’d prefer, but he uses his hands well and gets back to vertical more quickly. He does a better job of staying square to the line, which allows him to clear the offensive tackle’s hands. He also does a nice job of using the guard to deflect himself up field.
Oh goodness. By the third quarter, he’s hitting his rhythm. He’s lower, stays square to the line, clears the OT’s hands with a properly executed swim, and gets vertical quickly.
Here’s another great play from the Tennessee game. Note how much lower he is compared to that first bad example. Night and day.
Point of Emphasis: Play Recognition
Over the next three plays, let’s take a look at Clowney’s play recognition. In each of these plays, a tight end aligned as an H-back tries to block him with a wham block. That means the blocker is coming from the other side of the formation to clear him out from an inside run.
On the first play, the explosive Clowney gets his hands on the running back, but he attacks from the wrong side of the blocker. On these plays he is supposed to wrong arm the block. Wrong arming entails attacking the inside shoulder (closest to the line of scrimmage) of the running back. He can then make the play on the inside, or the running back will bounce outside to the force player, or the player who is responsible for containing the outside runs.
He almost makes the play here, but ultimately he just helps create a bubble for the running back. Hard not to be impressed with his speed, even if he’s graded down on the play.
As athletic as Clowney looked on the previous play, he was technically in the wrong. What intrigues me about this game is that Clowney improved on how he handled that situation throughout the game. Watch here as he checks for his responsibility versus the bootleg to his right,then turns back inside to take on the wham block.
Okay, Now I’m excited. On yet another wham block, he wrong arms it, loses his feet (that’s okay in this situation), bounces the play outside, and still makes the tackle. One of the thing that separates good players from great in the NFL is their ability to make adjustments within a game. Although he seems lost at times in deciphering backfield action, he generally figures it out as the game moves along.
Point of Emphasis: Taking on blocks vs. run
Against the run, he also has a tendency to play to high and let his feet die. He gets away with it in college, but as you can see in this play versus Michigan, it’s hard to get away with it against physical players. Clowney needs to sink his hips and keep his feet chopping here. When it’s time to disengage and make the tackle, he needs to be violent with his hands.
Here’s another example of “getting caught peeking.” Clowney needs to stay low and control the offensive lineman with his hands before he starts looking for the ball. Some 4-3 rush defensive ends never get all that good at this, but they play in schemes where they can jet up field every play and rely on their speed. As an outside linebacker, at times he will line up directly across from tight end and use his hands to read run or pass. Versus the run he’ll have to be violent with his hands and disciplined in pressing blocks.
He does an adequate job here. It’s worth noting that I saw more examples of him pressing run blocks in 2012 than 2013. I didn’t really see the motor issues that others did, so I think it was more likely a result of whatever groin issue he was playing with last year.
This is a pass play, but it shows Clowney’s ability to extend his arms and play tough football versus a tough football player in Taylor Lewan. Clowney doesn’t make the play, but he nails Lewan with a great bull rush and draws a holding penalty out of Lewan. Even though he was held, Clowney could do a better job by violently disengaging. Otherwise, it is a much better use of his hands than on the first two plays.
One other thing to notice here, and pretty much every other play in every game, is how fast he gets off the ball. He’s consistently one full stride ahead of his defensive line mates. This is one thing that translates very quickly to the NFL, at least when he’s in a 3 point stance. As a 3-4 outside linebacker he’ll be spending at least half his time in a two point stance, so his quickness off the ball from a standing position is something we’ll monitor during camp.
Point of Emphasis: The ill-advised swim move.
Great pass rushers are like jazz musicians. They have a plan, but the plan can change as the song changes. Sometimes Clowney plans a swim move and sticks with it even though there’s no way in hell a swim move is going to work. That’s the time to start playing jazz. How do you accomplish this? Just like a great musician, you practice. Lots and lots and lots of drill work. He needs to get to the point where he doesn’t go to a specific move, but the move that works in that moment. This only happens when you drill it so much that it becomes second nature. The tackle is leaning? Swim. The tackle is upright? Rip. The tackle is soft? Bull rush.
Okay class, you did great. Now let’s have some fun. A lot of people accused Clowney of making too many of his highlight plays when he was unblocked. I’m convinced that they watch plays like these and don’t realize that somebody was trying to block him.
Shake and an inside swim.
Oh, and just for the hell of it: