South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney said Tuesday he's as healthy as he's been all season and is ready to end his career strongly at the Capital One Bowl.
The eighth-ranked Gamecocks (10-2) face No. 19 Wisconsin (9-3) on New Year's Day. And a Clowney not slowed by bumps and bruises is a big plus for South Carolina.
The 6-foot-6, 274-pound junior has dealt with bone spurs in his foot and a strained muscle near his ribs this season, along with double and triple teams from opposing teams he's faced each game.
"Right now, my mind's on the team, trying to finish the season off strong and win this game against Wisconsin," Clowney said. "After that, I'll look forward to doing everything else."
For Clowney, that's prepping for May's NFL draft. He said a year ago this season would be his last in college and he took a final bow to South Carolina fans at the last home game as he was honored with departing seniors.
Clowney was the face of college football's offseason, largely because of his oft-replayed, helmet-popping hit on Michigan's Vincent Smith in last year's Outback Bowl.
But Clowney acknowledged it was not the disrsuptive season he had hoped — he had just three sacks, 10 fewer than his record-setting sophomore year — but the 20-year-old still believes he's ready for the next level.
Last month, ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said Clowney remained his top NFL prospect despite the drop in production.
"My attitude would be unless you need a quarterback or a great left tackle, you take Jadeveon Clowney" with the No. 1 selection, Kiper said on a November conference call.
Still, it has not been the easiest road this season for Clowney.
He was bothered by a reoccurance of bone spurs in his right foot, a problem he's had since high school. He pulled out of the game with Kentucky a short time before kickoff, citing strained muscles around his ribs. The move surprised and frustrated coach Steve Spurrier and touched off a weeklong debate about Clowney's commitment to the sport.
"I had to grow up fast, put it like that," he said. "I've had to grow up faster than people expect."
Clowney has shown a stellar work ethic since then, defensive line coach Deke Adams said. Clowney has had 7 ½ of his 10 ½ tackles for loss in his last six games. He sat out South Carolina's 70-10 win over FCS opponent Coastal Carolina on Nov. 23 to rest up for Clemson, where he notched his last sack in a 31-17 victory.
"I think he's handled himself well," Adam said. "I think some of the things throughout the year have been blown out of proportion with the way it happened. He's been great for us here."
Clowney believes the Gamecocks line will be ready for Wisconsin's strong running attack. South Carolina was second in the Southeastern Conference against the run this season, allowing only 142.2 yards a game.
"They can run the ball pretty well," Clowney said. "They'll try to pound it at us. We've got to be ready."
Clowney said his game has developed and he as matured the past three seasons, but noted there are always slipups while a person grows. He was stopped earlier this month by the South Carolina Highway Patrol and ticketed for going 110 mph on a stretch of Interstate 77.
"I'm still maturing as ... I grow into a young man," the 20-year-old said.
Defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles was named a second-team All-American by The AP, finishing with a team-high 9 ½ sacks this season. Quarles has credited the attention Clowney got from opponents with freeing him up to make plays. Clowney hasn't let his on-field frustrations affect his relationships with teammates, Quarles said.
"I told him when he committed that we're going to try and change the face of South Carolina," Quarles said. "Look what we've done."
The Gamecocks have gone 32-6 in Clowney's three seasons.
So Clowney will give himself a final chance to leave another big impression in college.
"I'm going to miss it," he says. "But I'm ready" to move on.