South Carolina Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (7) is blocked by North Carolina Tar Heels offensive tackle James Hurst (68) while rushing quarterback Bryn Renner (2) on Thursday at Williams-Brice Stadium. (Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports)
ATHENS — The Jadeveon Clowney from the season opener may not have impressed many, but that’s not the version Georgia football fans remember.
South Carolina’s star defensive end, hyped in the offseason as a Heisman Trophy candidate, made just three tackles and struggled with fatigue in last week’s victory over North Carolina. Clowney’s own head coach, Steve Spurrier, even noted that the likely No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL Draft wasn’t “up to par.”
If Clowney wants to answer those critics this week, it could spell bad news for UGA, which hosts South Carolina in their SEC opener Saturday at 4:30 p.m.
Much of the duty of slowing down Clowney will fall on left tackle Kenarious Gates.
“I think Gates is a very good player,” UGA head coach Mark Richt said. “He is the guy that has the best shot at matching up out there (with Clowney). We wouldn’t be playing him at left tackle if we didn’t think he could do it. He went up against Jadeveon a year ago, so it won’t be like a first-time experience for him.
“He’s ready to go, and he’s confident that he’s going to play well, but we all know that it’s a 60-minute game. You probably have 200 plays in a game between offense, defense and special teams, and every snap is a battle. You’re going to win some and lose some, but we think he gives us our best shot to succeed.”
That said, Gates will have help.
It likely will be needed against Clowney, who sacked UGA quarterback Aaron Murray twice as a freshman and sacked him once last season. Murray struggled mightily against the Gamecocks last season, partly because of the pressure from Clowney and his fellow defensive linemen.
With those performances in mind, the Bulldog coaches will use others to help Gates on Clowney.
“There’s a lot of different things you can do on pass protection,” Richt said. “One of the things is that if you slide your protection towards a guy like that, you free up your tackle not to block him one-on-one. Your tackle basically is responsible for taking him on an outside rush, but if he makes a move inside of him, there will be a guard waiting for him, so that’s one way. Another way is to try to even put a tight end to the side that he’s at and give him a little bit more to navigate as he’s coming through the line of scrimmage.
“The other thing is to have a back or a tight end off the ball who can chip on the way out. You can also design plays where you don’t hold the ball very long. Set your point, get up in the pocket and get the ball out quickly. There’s always your quick passing game where you may try to change up your blocking technique with the cut block from time to time. That might give him something to think about, but those are the things that you try to do. You can also sprint your protection to or away from him or move the pocket from time to time.”
While South Carolina got a victory in its opener, Georgia is out to avoid an 0-2 start on the heels of last Saturday night’s three-point loss at Clemson. The Bulldogs got down 10 before scoring a late touchdown, but they weren’t able to recover the ensuing onside kick and Clemson ran out the clock.
The other major program from South Carolina comes to town this weekend, armed with not just Clowney but a three-game winning streak over the Bulldogs.
“It’s no fun to lose, and it’s no fun to lose early,” Richt said. “With the type of schedule that we have, there’s a risk of that. That’s football, and that’s the way it is. We’d prefer not to be sitting (0-2) like we were a couple years ago after Boise State and South Carolina. We’re going to do our best not to be in that position, but the goal is to win the SEC Eastern Division.
“Obviously everyone is in really good shape to do that across the league. Vanderbilt’s the only team that has a loss. Everyone in the East still has control of their own destiny at this point, and that’s really all you can hope for.”
UGA’s seniors also don’t want to go 0-for their career against South Carolina.
“You want every game bad,” UGA senior defensive lineman Garrison Smith said. “We don’t like losses and I don’t like losing. Nobody likes losing. We just have to go out there and do the best we can and try and get the W.”