ROCK HILL, S.C. -- Blame the NFL.

When Jadeveon Clowney is crunching your favorite team's quarterback, terrorizing its offensive tackles, knocking the helmets off its ball carriers and single-handedly causing its offense to fall apart this season, blame the NFL.

Because the league forbids its teams from drafting players who are less than three years removed from high school, Clowney is back in South Carolina preparing for his junior season. If not for the rule, Clowney very likely would have been the No. 1 selection in this past spring's NFL draft.

Instead, he's about eight months of good health away from being the first pick in next year's draft.

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JADEVEON CLOWNEY
2012 STATISTICS/12 GAMES
Unassisted tackles 40
Assisted tackles 14
Tackles for loss 23.5
Tackles for loss/yards 113
Sacks 13
Sacks/yards 73
Pass breakups 2
Quarterback hurries 5
Fumbles forced 3
Fumbles recovered 1

Heck, Clowney probably could have been drafted right out of South Pointe High School, where his defensive coach remembers the then-skinny end sending a helmet flying the first time he stepped on the practice field with the varsity as a ninth grader.

"You're all seeing that now," said Zack Snyder, Clowney's former defensive coach at South Pointe. "I've been watching that for years."

Sndyer isn't alone. Clowney has been in the spotlight since grade school. That's one reason why the Gamecocks' 6-foot-6, 274-pound All-American has so far been able to handle the attention that comes with being a Heisman Trophy contender and the man responsible for "The Hit" -- his fumble-inducing, helmet-popping tackle in the Outback Bowl that is still drawing ooohs and aaahs today.

"The Heisman's not a big deal for me," Clowney said. "Winning the SEC championship's a big deal to me. Getting drafted high is a big deal."

His size and stardom draw people around him, yet Clowney seems to stay grounded by not forgetting those who've helped him get this far. A polite and friendly 20-year-old, he uses "sir" and "ma'am" in his answers. He enjoys simple things -- fishing and video games.

"There's not really a lot I do," Clowney said. "I hang with the same people I grew up with so that's how I stay out of trouble."

When Clowney saw Snyder at the spring game and fans made a beeline to him to say hello, the mega-star made sure he said hello to his old coach. "There was a crowd of 500 people who wanted to touch him like he was Jesus," Snyder said.

It's something the defensive standout has dealt with since he was a youngster.

Clowney was always taller and faster than those he played against, even as an 8-year-old playing organized football for the first time. Youth coach Eric Mitchell said Clowney would rush through the line on offense or defense and quickly outrun the competition.

When he got to high school and walked through South Pointe's weight room, Clowney was a 6-3 string bean, recalled Bobby Carroll, Clowney's high-school coach. Still, it didn't take him long to make an impact on the field.

Buffalo Bills defensive back Stephon Gilmore, Clowney's South Pointe and South Carolina teammate, was varsity quarterback in high school.

"I kept wondering who this guy was on my back," Gilmore said in a phone interview.

On a trip to Clowney's hometown, longtime fans can easily rattle off his high-school highlights: a 70-yard sprint to chase down a receiver, scoring three first-quarter touchdowns in a playoff game and a 99-yard TD run.

But despite his athletic prowess, people who know him say Clowney is a person who wants to please everyone.

"He just didn't want to say no to anybody," Carroll said. "He hates that."

Clowney's good nature played a part in his signing-day plans when he waited almost two weeks later to choose the Gamecocks, Carroll said, because he struggled to tell Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and Alabama head coach Nick Saban, his other finalists, that he was choosing South Carolina.

"He doesn't like to disappoint people," Carroll said.

That's good news to NFL executives, who have another season to evaluate Clowney -- though maybe he's shown enough. Clowney is such a highly rated prospect already that it has been suggested he should've taken this season off to protect his value.

"He wasn't ever going to do that," Carroll said. "He wants to play."

“I'm just ready to play. Show people what I got this year and have a little fun.”
-- Jadeveon Clowney

So, backed by a $5 million insurance policy, Clowney hopes to put on one last big-time show in college. He was a walking highlight reel even before he de-helmeted Michigan's Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl with any achievement up on YouTube in seconds. He's run a 4.46-second 40-yard dash this summer, then overturned a two-man tackling sled at practice along with teammate Gerald Dixon Jr.

With each exploit the frenzy grows. To protect his star, Spurrier has closed summer workouts -- even scrimmages where generally several thousand turn out at Williams-Brice Stadium to watch. Spurrier said the crowd of autograph seekers attending practice clamor for Clowney.

"Poor Jadeveon can't hardly get out on the field without getting somebody mad at him," Spurrier said.

Clowney was the SEC's freshman of the year, notching eight sacks and showing his ability to make the game-changing plays. He took his game up several rungs last season, finishing with 13 sacks to earn SEC defensive player of the year.

One more number: That hit on Smith has drawn more than 1.8 million views on YouTube.

Snyder said before Clowney could become a star, he had to learn how to work like one. Even when he got to college, that took some time to click, Gamecocks defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward has said.

Now he's just about the biggest star in college football, outside of College Station, Texas.

So big that it was reported rap mogul Jay Z and his recently formed sports agency has reached out to Clowney. South Carolina's compliance office said it found no wrongdoing on Clowney's part.

Clowney seems to be enjoying the ride.

He poked fun at Spurrier, who said he was tired of answering questions about his star lineman.

"JD," Clowney said in his best Spurrier imitation, "why do they got to keep asking questions about you?' I said, 'I have no idea, Coach.' "

At SEC media days, Clowney said some rival quarterbacks such as Clemson's Tajh Boyd and Georgia's Aaron Murray are scared of him.

"I like to pick at quarterbacks. That's what I do," Clowney said. "If they can't handle the heat, get out of the kitchen."

Clowney expects to turn the heat up this fall and can't wait for his final season to start against North Carolina on Aug. 29.

"I'm kind of tired of it," Clowney said of the attention. "I'm just ready to play. Show people what I got this year and have a little fun."