Antonio "Tiny" Richardson's legacy as an All-SEC tackle should be judged by his status as a plug-and-play pass protector at the next level. The Tennessee junior is projected to be one of the first lineman selected in next year's NFL Draft, yet another player from the SEC's war chest of size-and-speed monsters that annually flood the first round.
He should be prepping quietly for millions in the way most offensive linemen do, but instead he's the failed foil of one superstar defensive end, Jadeveon Clowney.
Richardson saw Clowney in roughly 50 one-on-one situations when the Vols nearly upset South Carolina in 2012. He stopped him roughly 49 times, and then he didn't:
"That’s freakish, though. His first step off the ball is freakish."
Richardson has spent 2013 wading through Clowney questions -- at SEC Media Days, after practices, and at countless other media ops -- but he doesn't do so begrudgingly. Like the rest of us, Richardson has manufactured his own Jadeveon Clowney hyperbole, except that his is far more personal than a message board campfire tale about verticals or 40 times.
"He has all the intangibles you ask for," Richardson said. "He’s the prototypical defensive end. I heard he ran a 4.46, but I’d have to see that to believe it. That’s freakish, though. His first step off the ball is freakish. He can make you get off balance."
Richardson has repeatedly told the media he watches tape of his performance against Clowney in the 2012 Tennessee vs. South Carolina game on a near-loop. Or at least weekly, he concedes when pressed.
"He's the guy I go against that I look forward to the most," Richardson said.
While Clowney's shadow has become seemingly inescapable, Richardson knows that Clowney can be beat. Richardson did it almost 50 times.
"You have to let him know that you’re there to stay," Richardson said. "For me, what I had to do was be in his ear the whole time, letting him know that, hey, I’m not going anywhere, and I’m going to bring the same intensity the whole game. That’s what I did last year, and that’s what I’m going to do this year. Except I’m going to be a year older."
But the definition of winning is slanted against offensive linemen. So Richardson has embraced his failure and added to the myth of Clowney. He's done it to serve the purpose of winning. He doesn't even mind that Clowney complimented his ability to get away with holding.
"Some of the best offensive linemen can hold and get away with it. Jonathan Ogden, Anthony Munoz, all those guys could get away with it. But sometimes you gotta stop crying and move on," Richardson says with a smile.
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"I don't think it's hype. He's the real deal."
While he was considered an offensive master mechanic at the pro level, Kansas head coach Charlie Weis' succinct diagnosis of Clowney could pass at any casual tailgate: "My advice to everyone right now is to run to the other side.
"I don't think it's hype, what you're seeing in the media. He's the real deal."
Weis advises against an empty-backfield formation, conceding its potential plays.
"You can't spend the game in empty and ask the lineman to go one-on-one. You're asking for a butt-kicking, and that's just not giving your players a competitive chance."
As offensive coordinator of the Florida Gators in 2011, Weis schemed against Clowney once, and the freshman finished with one tackle for a loss. Looking back, Weis emphasizes that a single elite pass-rushing end is only one half of an unsolvable problem.
"The critical factor isn't how good he is, it's whether or not he's the only one you have to worry about," he said. "The one year I saw him he was the second-best pass rusher on the field. What they did was line up 7 [Clowney] and 9 [former Gamecocks defensive end Melvin Ingram] right next to each other, and you couldn't assign enough protection to that end. As the game would go on, they would move one to the other side to take away help on both of them."
While the freshman was a statistical non-factor against the Gators, Ingram finished with four tackles (two for a loss), including one sack of quarterback John Brantley in the third quarter of a 17-12 Carolina win.
Here's an example against Clemson in 2011: Clowney (outside) and Ingram (inside) are paired on the left. Jadeveon draws the double team when the the running back shifts to help the left tackle before flaring out, leaving Ingram in a one-on-one on the way to quarterback Tajh Boyd:
"When I was in the NFL, you'd look at the Colts and how Dwight Freeney was one of the best pass rushers in the game," Weis said. "One of the reasons why is because you had [Robert] Mathis on the other side. If you slid protection over to Freeney, Mathis would kill you. My first year in the league, I'm working on defense and we've got Lawrence Taylor rushing one side and Carl Banks is rushing another. As good as LT was, Banks helped make it work."
While the Gamecocks have lost all their linebackers who had more than five tackles last year, defensive end Chaz Sutton (seven tackles for loss, 25 tackles in 2012) and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles (eight tackles for loss, 38 tackles) return. With that much returning experience up front, Weis advises keeping a loaded backfield.
"You can chip [with running backs] on two different guys, but now you're only free-releasing three [receivers] into the play," he said. "That's taking away the effectiveness of your passing game."
Even then, two sets of double teams won't guarantee a clean pocket for the quarterback. And Weis has a warning for read-option proponents.
"With a guy like that, he’s athletic enough to take the back and the quarterback," he said. "Only the truly exceptional ones can do that. Hit you with a flat stance, and if you go to the back, take him, but still also be able to get to the quarterback."
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2013 season preview
(USA Today Images)
The psychology of facing Clowney seeps into the coaches' meeting room. To ignore the mental hurdle of his media profile would be to do your offensive linemen and quarterbacks a great disservice.
At least 12 coaching staffs will take their turns demystifying the man, trying to instill some sense of faith into their inferior, by comparison, players. Walt Wells is the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach for South Florida, part of new head coach Willie Taggart's staff that moved from Western Kentucky in the offseason. Taggart's Hilltopers routinely faced national title caliber teams in pay-off non-conference games, including two No. 1's (2011 LSU and 2012 Alabama) in recent seasons.
"When we were at Western, we always said that playing against guys with more accolades made you a better football player," Wells said. "You always played against a really good guy in high school, that one guy who went on to play at a major university. You have to look at it like that, that it's just that one guy from high school you never stopped hearing about. This is a big opportunity for you."
USF under Taggart will employ a traditional power offense that comes straight from the Harbaugh tree: big running backs, big linemen and crafty tight ends working in a series of shifts and players in motion pre-snap to confuse defenses into missing assignments. There's no search for open space, a la the spread, or any reading off a defensive end in this offense. So the assumption might be that if any philosophy dictates bucking up and going head-on after a talent like Clowney, it's here.
"To me, you would try and create extra gaps and run away from him," Wells said. "It depends on where they'll use him at, and that's where our shifts and motions come into play. In the running game, it's easier to find out where he's playing certain formations. Then you line up like that, then shift and run away from it, or use play-action. Line up to find out where he's at, then kill the play and go away from him."
Power is sometimes considered a simplistic approach, but the pre-snap shifts in the USF offense are designed to confuse would-be blitzers as to where their gaps are. Like a spread offense, a simple base set of plays can be called ad nauseam in the power, with variations coming only in where the players line up. But the wrinkle before the snap adds the dilemma of when.
"You better respect him, but you don't have to fear him."
"Anybody of that caliber, even they're going to make some mistakes. It's about taking advantage when that happens. You have to heighten your awareness on your technique and your abilities and try and challenge him every play."
"You better respect him, but you don't have to fear him," Wells said.
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So what if it was possible to run an offense that didn't give up sacks, thereby voiding the most dangerous facet of Clowney's game?
Middle Tennessee tied for third in the nation in sacks allowed in 2012, giving up only eight in 12 games. Clowney had four and a half in a single game at Clemson. In the Football Outsiders adjusted sack ranking, MTSU ranked eighth nationally.
It's a system, explained by offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner, that's predicated on up-tempo pace, a variety of cadences before the ball is snapped, and quick throws to the perimeter, sometimes specifically to change the hash for the next play and exhaust bigger defensive players early by running laterally.
"We want to get the ball out quick, in space, to a playmaker," Faulkner said. "We'll throw a 5-yard ball and hope that it goes 15 yards if a guy misses a tackle. We recruit guys who can make one guy miss, and you'll see it all the time with us: We'll throw a 2-yard crossing route that turns into a 15-yard gain."
Faulkner's armchair scheme is similar to Weis' and Wells': Have backs stay in and chip, or slide the protection to Clowney's side of the line for an extra blocker. There's even a new trend of bluffing a blocker at a defensive end to confuse assignments (a technique Faulkner notes that was made popular by the San Francisco 49ers last season).
But MTSU's biggest and most unique advantage is in seconds. The average passing play in its offense is executed long before anyone, even Clowney, could get to the passer.
"I'd say on average last season, there's probably only five or six called plays a game that could result in a sack," Faulkner said.
MTSU uses a quick-release, hurry-up attack to both combat elite opposing athletes but also to suit what's available for the Blue Raiders in recruiting. As is the case with many sub-BCS programs, smaller available recruits put the emphasis on athleticism and timing.
"Against a BCS team like Georgia Tech [whom the Blue Raiders beat] last season, I think we only had four true dropback passes that relied on protection. Everything else was playing at a high tempo, changing the cadence to make them show what they were doing, and then get the ball out quick to win leverage."
There are drawbacks to Middle's quick-draw passes, namely the ability to draw out longer downfield plays. Faulkner said that against "any elite talent" like Clowney, the emphasis has to be on preventing the disparity of one-on-one matchups that could create failure.
"We'll give up things to make sure we get what we want, and what we want most to is take care of the quarterback and get the ball out of his hands," he said.
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A funny thing happened between Alabama's 9-6 loss to LSU in November 2011 and the Tide's 21-0 domination of the Tigers in the national title game that January: a homecoming game against FCS power Georgia Southern in Tuscaloosa. The Eagles of Statesboro are a triple-option offense in the Paul Johnson family. Alabama won 45-21, but in one half of football, GSU scored two more touchdowns on offense than LSU did in eight quarters.
More importantly, it's been suggested in coaching circles that Alabama learned something from GSU. After LSU leaned on traditional option runs to gain 148 yards and a 3.6 yards per attempt average in the 9-6 win, it was held to 39 total rushing yards in the national title. The Eagles' triple option yielded 302 rushing yards against the Tide, and it provided a tutorial on option mechanics.
Southern's triple option adds a crucial element that complicates defensive line assignments: an extra read. Whereas the read option usually means reading a defensive end and then keeping the ball or handing to a rusher who is headed either to the perimeter or inside, in the triple option a quarterback has backs headed in multiple ways.
"I think that's some of what you saw in the  National Championship game," Georgia Southern offensive coordinator Brent Davis said. "We're multiple in the options we run, instead of a team that just runs to the perimeter. When you have the option of going to the fullback inside, it slows a defense down a little bit. We like to work inside to outside."
So what does this have to do with Clowney? Two things. First, a menu of nearly perpetual run calls means that GSU almost always throws out of play-action and does so out of formations identical to runs the defense has already seen (sometimes on the previous play).
"Our protection looks like run, so it’s a run read for a DE and everyone up front. That means they’re trying to play off as a run block instead of getting to the edge," Davis said.
Second, that potential inside option of the fullback, be it a handoff or pitch, complicates the rare outright passing down.
"Against a more conventional offense, you'll see the ends line up wider in obvious passing situations. But because we have the threat of the fullback in a triple option, they have to stay inside to account for that, as well. Having the fullback inside helps tremendously."
A tighter break off the ball can limit even elite ends from being able to execute their technique, be it a bull, swim or whatever superhuman power move Clowney exudes. And let's not forget the simple math of opportunity. Against Alabama, GSU was 1-of-7 passing for the entire game. Seven total pass attempts makes double-digit sacks hard to come by. Also, that one completion was a 39-yard touchdown pass.
Against triple-option Navy in 2011, a freshman Clowney was held to only three tackles and was routinely out of position against the run. South Carolina escaped with a 24-21 win. In this clip, YouTube user BigPlayBreakdown contrasts the effect of Clowney making the right read and the wrong one:
"Neutralize him. You don't have to block him. The fact [Clowney] is an amazing athlete shouldn't make him any tougher to read," Davis said.
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University of Louisiana at Monroe's Todd Berry is working to rebrand a doormat program with the luster of an SEC upset. Granted, the Arkansas team the Warhawks knocked off in Little Rock last season had nothing in the way of Clowney's ability on the edge, but Berry's entire offensive philosophy at little ULM translates to any SEC staff preparing for Clowney.
"Read him. One of the reasons why I got into the spread offense is because I was here at ULM in '04 and '05 and we were playing Auburn and LSU, and my little tackles that were freshmen couldn't block those ends," Berry said. "So I had to take those ends out the game. Start reading them."
Berry preaches a never-ending succession of looks before the snap, similar to the shift/motion changes in the power offense but constant and almost never repeated. The idea is that even Clowney can't overcome a seemingly brand new look in protection schemes on each and every play.
"If you can't slow him down physically, which is going to be hard to do, you've got to slow him down mentally. Anyone can be challenged by seeing lots of things. And so all of a sudden you're singled, you're doubled, you're reading him, you're bringing a guy from the backside, you're bringing a guy from the outside in. You want them to stop and have to think, 'Who is blocking me on this snap?' Because that slows them down. They have to play the block," Berry said.
"If you're just going to line a player up in front of him and say OK, he's blocking you? You better have a guy just like Clowney, and there's not many of those guys out there."
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it's unanimous in film rooms around the league that the beast is evolving. Quickly.
According to a current assistant coach for an SEC team scheduled to play Clowney this season, it's unanimous in film rooms around the league that the beast is evolving. Quickly.
"Last year was the biggest difference, I thought," the assistant said. "He became very disciplined in his keys, what the offense was telling him when the ball was snapped. As a freshman, if you watched him he was just a freak in general. His specialty was up-the-field pass rushing and all that stuff, and he was susceptible to getting trapped and having guys run up underneath him. In the zone read, he was getting read."
Because of his freak status, Clowney's biggest growth hasn't been a refining of pass-rush technique. That's basically perfect, according to coaches, and has been since he was a freshman. Instead, the improvement has been adjusting to play-action passes by becoming a better defender against the run. It's also why the SEC assistant suggests options might not be as effective this season against Clowney.
"He became a more complete lineman in terms of his ability to read and react and stay disciplined without losing that edge presence that makes a great pass rusher. That's where a defensive end like him differentiates himself from others in that position. That's where he's really made himself some money next year."
With a working game knowledge of Clowney, the assistant offered a rough game plan against South Carolina's defense.
- "In terms of players, I think all that psychology stuff is overblown. You know who he is. I don't need to remind you who you're playing against."
- "From a schematic standpoint, you probably want to to put a tight end over the top of him, even if the tight end's going to release. That way the tight end might be able to maneuver him outside before he can start [to pass rush]."
- "If the feeling is that the protection is outmanned no matter what, hesitation is the only equalizer. Remember the shell game? Where's the ball at? You have to go with a lot of misdirection, orbit motions, fake reverses, play-action passes, and all off your normal looks to cause him to think more and not play as fast."
- "Don't go right at him running it. There are guys, elite defensive ends I've seen in the past, that didn't like it if you ran right at them. They preferred to be in backside pursuit to get speed and make the big play. Not him. It doesn't bother him."
- "Take a running back and then a tight end or h-back and chip. See how he deals with getting chipped early on, but change up who's chipping him. He'll learn."
- "Watch him on play-action closely. If we play a hardball play-action and the OL is giving him a run read, it still takes him that much more of a second to react to the pass."
- "Above all else, avoid third and 15 at all costs, because at that point, you can forget about stopping his edge rush. It's all assholes and elbows then."
The plan seems to incorporate the suggestions from what other coaches said. It's reasonable to believe that for all the variety and nuance across college football, there's a universal narrative on Jadeveon Clowney: Do what you can to move away from his direction, prepare to sacrifice something in the backfield and accept the hype.
"Hey," the SEC assistant coach adds, "all this stuff sounds good and great, but there's some players that just transcend all that shit. And this son of a bitch, he's pretty good right now."