- Travis Haney, ESPN Staff Writer
Let's be honest. It's a "contract year" -- a make-or-break season -- for college football standouts who will be eligible for the 2014 NFL draft. As 32 professional teams jockey for the top prospects, the players' sense of urgency could work out well for their current college teams.
Regardless of whether some of college football's top players chose to return to school to boost their draft stocks or to help their teams chase a conference or national title -- or because they weren't yet eligible for the NFL draft -- the top 2014 prospects will likely have a major impact upon their programs in terms of 2013 rankings, recruiting and beyond.
Kiper rank: No. 1 | McShay rank: No. 1
Though he wasn't eligible to be drafted, Clowney was talked about as much as any prospect in the 2013 draft. However, let's not overlook the value he will provide South Carolina between now and when his name is called next April.
The No. 1 prospect in the 2011 ESPN150 logged 21 sacks in his first two seasons for the Gamecocks, and he should pass the school record of 29 by midseason in 2013. And that only measures the plays in which he gets to the quarterback; Clowney's disruptiveness on virtually every play is difficult to adequately quantify.
Of course, we have an ultimate example of that disruptive ability -- "The Hit" versus Michigan -- but casual fans probably don't realize that game was one of Clowney's quieter performances. He was mostly held in check by Wolverines tackle Taylor Lewan, another Big Board prospect, until miscommunication led to his game-altering tackle, forced fumble and recovery.
South Carolina coaches have told me how far Clowney has come as someone willing to learn -- and lead. It's been quite a transformation, they say. He's making those around him better, and the way that he commands defensive attention creates tackling and pressure opportunities for his teammates.
With a string of high-level in-state prospects -- first-round corner Stephon Gilmore, second-round receiver Alshon Jeffery, fourth-round running back Marcus Lattimore and Clowney -- this is literally the best run in the program's 100-plus-year history. South Carolina has won 11 games in each of the past two seasons; prior to that, the Gamecocks had never won more than 10 games in a season.
But there's still another notch or two to climb.
The last time I spoke with one of South Carolina's assistant coaches, he was as positive as I've ever heard him about the team. I asked him about potential weak points, and he said there weren't very many of great concern. That's a stark statement relative to when I first started on that beat for the Charleston Post and Courier in 2007, when a lack of depth and star power at South Carolina was thematic -- and damning. Now the school is on the verge of producing its second No. 1 overall pick (RB George Rogers went first overall in the 1981 NFL draft). Could it be on the verge of similar team success?
Maybe, just maybe, this is the season in which Steve Spurrier gets his first SEC title with the Gamecocks. They have been close the past three seasons, after all. Residual thought: Would that title, and the school's BCS berth, be enough for Spurrier to call it a career? I say yes, and so do some people close to the program, who thought he was just sticking around to be the school's all-time wins leader (he set that mark by beating Clemson in November).