RENTON — At first, Jadeveon Clowney hated the idea of playing defensive end so much that he nearly quit football. He was 15, a sophomore embarking on his first season of varsity at South Pointe High in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and he fancied himself a running back.
In his mind, there was no question — he was a running back.
He had ample evidence to support his stubbornness: A year earlier, as a 6-foot-2, 200-pound freshman playing on the South Pointe freshman team, Clowney had scored 35 touchdowns in nine games, and he was the fastest guy on the field just about every time he was out there.
So when his coaches suggested a full-time move to defense before the following season, Clowney was emphatic.
“I was done with football. I was like, ‘You know what? F*** this,’” Clowney recalled Wednesday while sitting at his locker inside the Seahawks’ practice facility.
“I was trying to be a running back. I was like, ‘I ain’t gonna be a D-end. Naw, I’m going to be a running back. I play running back!’”
The Seahawks’ new star defensive end can look back and laugh at the high school drama now, more than a decade after his initial reluctance.
“It was some funny sh**, because I really, really did not want to switch,” he said. “I was like, ‘Man, girls don’t like nobody that don’t score touchdowns, you know what I’m saying?’”
Clowney did, of course, eventually make the switch to defense. By the end of his sophomore season, opposing coaches were calling him “The Monster.” And before graduating from South Pointe, he would become the most celebrated recruit South Carolina’s ever had.
“I got right. It got better. I started playing and started making plays,” he said.
And the girls?
“They did notice. I started scoring touchdowns on defense, so it all worked out.”
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The first time Bobby Carroll laid eyes on Jadeveon Clowney? How could he forget?
The South Pointe head coach had opened the weight room for a preseason workout in early July 2007 … and in walked this freshman running back.
“He was at least 6-2 as a freshman, and he came in with a kid who was probably 5-foot-2,” Bobby Carroll said in a phone interview this week from South Carolina. “I looked at him and said, ‘Hey, man, the football gods have been good to us.’”
South Pointe’s football fields were arranged in such a way that the varsity team practiced on one side of campus and the freshman team was far away on the other side. They had separate locker rooms and a separate coaching staff; rarely did the two teams mingle.
Because of that, Zach Snyder, the varsity defensive line coach, hadn’t seen Clowney in full pads until the freshman team’s first game. Snyder and Carroll — no one else volunteered — were in charge of setting up a video camera to capture game footage of the freshmen, and together they watched from the press box as Clowney took the first snaps of his high school career.
Oh, if only the camera had been turned around to capture the coaches’ reactions.
“It took three plays for us to look at each other and go, ‘Holy sh**! Who is this kid?’” Snyder recalled this week.
Said Carroll: “When we watched him play as a freshman, it was almost silly. It was like the opposite of the David and Goliath story. Goliath was just kicking David’s ass, you know what I mean?”
In Clowney, Snyder saw a potential star edge rusher; immediately, the coach was struck by his length and strength, comparing his physical build to that of Jason Taylor, one of the NFL’s all-time sack leaders.
Snyder knew he had to make Clowney see what he saw. He started with breakfast.
Before school, Snyder would make visits to McDonalds, or to Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits, and seek out Clowney around school.
“I made sure quietly that I was the one bringing him breakfast; I was the one checking on him in the classroom,” Snyder said. “I wanted him to make sure he didn’t forget who I was, because I wanted him to play football.”
Even after his eye-opening freshman season in football, Clowney — “JD” to the coaches — would tell Snyder that basketball was his main sport. That continued until midway through Clowney’s sophomore year — until he’d relented and started to become the kind of defensive end Snyder and Carroll thought he could be, helping South Pointe to a 15-0 season and a state championship in 2008. (That title team featured two seniors who would also play in the NFL: Stephon Gillmore, a first-round pick in 2012 and now a starting cornerback for New England; and DeVonte Holloman, a starting linebacker for Dallas in 2013 who is now in his first season as the head coach back at South Pointe.)
As a 6-foot-5, 250-pound senior, Clowney had 162 tackles, 29½ sacks, 29 tackles for loss, 11 forced fumbles and he scored five defensive touchdowns in 15 games. And, yes, he got to be a part-time running back, too, rushing for nine touchdowns in his 32 carries his final season at South Pointe.
“It was a fun ride,” Snyder said. “He was very easy to coach. It’s rare in high school football when you can say, ‘Hey, kid, go do this’ — and they can just automatically do it. Not everyone you coach — we’re talking about 16-year-old kids — can do it.”
• • •
Clowney’s high school coaches have kept close watch on him as he went from No. 1 national recruit to No. 1 NFL draft pick to Houston in 2014.
Bobby Carroll flew to Boston a couple years ago to see a Houston-New England game, reuniting with Clowney and Gilmore. Carroll and Clowney spent time together in Rock Hill this summer when Clowney was home for his annual youth football camp.
Snyder will occasionally connect with Clowney on Snapchat. He’ll send out a “Good luck, JD” or a “Good game” note; Clowney will check back asking for updates on Snyder’s kids (Snyder’s oldest son was born when Clowney was a South Pointe senior).
“He is just such a jovial guy. That guy is the greatest,” Carroll said. “I’m telling you, y’all up there are getting an incredible guy. You’re going to love him.”
Clowney’s high school coaches say they love the fit for Clowney in Seattle — and love that he will return to his roots as more of a traditional, hand-in-the-ground defensive end in the Seahawks’ 4-3 defense. That’s the system they ran at South Pointe; that’s what Clowney did most often in college at South Carolina; and that, in their experience, is where Clowney is at his best.
“If you go back and watch some of their game film (from Houston), he’s lining up in a 2-technique over the guard; he’s blitzing the A-gap from the linebacker position,” Snyder said. “And while those things are great and he made great plays — because he’s a great player — that’s not really who he is. He’s also not the super-serious, walk-around-with-a-smug-look-on-your-face type of guy like (Texans) Coach (Bill) O’Brien. No disrespect to him.
“And I don’t know Pete Carroll, but I know what I see on the TV. That guy is happy, and he smiles, and he likes football, and he likes his players. And if that’s any indication on the surface, then him and JD are going to get along just fine. Because that’s exactly who JD is. He is that laugh-all-through-practice, have-fun, competitive-type guy. I don’t have to tell you how competitive he is. Just turn on the game tape — he can fire. And I think Seattle is going to be a great fit for him.”
Bobby Carroll has never met Pete Carroll, but he says he’s long joked with friends that the Seahawks coach is one of his uncles. He reached out to Clowney after the trade to Seattle was finalized this week.
“I texted him (Monday) and said, ‘Hey man, you’re playing for another Coach Carroll. I know what that means: It’s ring time, man!’ ” Bobby Carroll said. “Clowney’s in a good place, and I think they’ll get along.”