Clowney is, of course, the first thing everyone thinks about when South Carolina comes up and is in line to be the top pick in the 2014 NFL draft, so the first question everyone naturally has is how the Tar Heels will account for Clowney.
That they will line up their own top NFL prospect James Hurst opposite Clowney at left tackle is of course critical to the Heels' ability to neutralize the Gamecocks' hyped defensive end, as Hurst is one of the few tackles in the nation with the size, length, and movement skills to handle Clowney on his own at times. In response, I expect to see South Carolina move Clowney around a bit to produce better matchups.
Either way, I expect UNC to widen the split between the guard and tackle to Clowney's side just slightly, forcing him wider and giving him a tougher angle to the quarterback. Clowney should also expect a steady diet of cut blocks—players of his caliber have an even larger interest in protecting their knees and typically slow down even more when getting cut regularly. I also expect the Heels to chip Clowney with a back on longer pass plays.
All that said, the reality is that Larry Fedora's offense is especially suited to neutralizing the impact of a dominant defensive end. Fedora has often stated that in his offense, sacks are always the quarterback's fault because the ball is supposed to be out before a defender could possibly get to the quarterback. Think about it this way: Clowney's ten-yard dash time (without pads is around 1.5 seconds, which is about the same amount of time Bryn Renner will typically hold the football before throwing it. That means that even if Clowney were completely unblocked, he would still be unable to get a sack in a typical UNC pass play.
As we've discussed before, Fedora is essentially running a triple option scheme from the shotgun spread. As part of this scheme, they're going to read Clowney for much of the game—either running the inside zone read off Clowney or tossing the ball outside on quick bubble screens. Forcing Clowney to make those decisions is designed to slow him down and prevent him from simply being able to launch forward into a clear assignment.
As a result of all these factors, I really don't think Clowney will have a major impact through most of the game, nor do I think UNC will have to waste much effort putting together anything special to account for Clowney. The only real concern for the Heels is Clowney managing to make one or two splash plays—perhaps getting a hand on a bubble screen or quick pass, causing a turnover, or getting a big hit on Renner at some point.
Making the Defensive Line Run
I actually think South Carolina defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles is the more important player in this game. While Clowney has a reputation for taking plays off, Quarles is a consistent disruptive presence in the middle who will need to be accounted for if UNC is going to have success in the running game. One additional key for handling both Quarles and Clowney is fatigue.
Fedora's stated aim is always to force the defensive line to have to run sideline-to-sideline. It's a lot harder to rush the passer or play with power against the run when you're gassed, and the goal early on will be to tire the South Carolina defensive front by getting the ball on the edge before they can affect the game in the backfield.
This is even more important than usual against South Carolina because the Gamecocks are not especially deep. They have a very good starting four on the defensive line but lost three defensive linemen from last year's two deep (along with all five of their top linebackers), and the 2012 South Carolina defense already struggled some with depth, performing significantly worse in the second and fourth quarters of games than in the first and third.
Keeping Leverage, Avoiding Long Yardage
All this said, to me the single biggest key in this game is UNC's success rate on first down. If the Heels are able to get four yards on first down with consistency—thus avoiding second and third and long situations—they're going to score a lot of points against this South Carolina defense and its shaky secondary.
This is where Clemson struggled against South Carolina last year, struggling to stay ahead of the sticks and getting into long-yardage situations where Clowney and the South Carolina defensive front could tee off on Tajh Boyd on deep drops where he had to hold the ball longer than ideal.
If UNC is able to have success on first down with the run/pass packages like the inside zone/bubble screen package outlined last week, Renner and the offense will have the leverage to avoid situations where the South Carolina defense can pin its ears back and rush the passer, instead keeping the pressure on the defense to stop what UNC does best.
So when you're watching the game on Thursday night, pay close attention to the second down yardages. If you're seeing a lot of 2nd and 6 or less—especially early in the game, when such yardage will be tougher—I think the chances of a UNC upset are pretty good.
Jason Staples was a walk-on wide receiver at Florida State in the early part of the last decade and has provided in-depth football analysis on the Scout network since 2007. A member of the Foootball Writers' Association of America, he is presently finishing a Ph.D. at UNC-Chapel Hill and will be providing scheme and stats analysis for InsideCarolina in 2013.