Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 7/16/13
HOOVER, Ala. -- Moments make Heisman Trophy campaigns, and in the case of a player who could shatter the award's last glass ceiling, it couldn't be more true. Fourth quarter. Outback Bowl. A breakdown on Michigan's offensive line allowed Jadeveon Clowney a clear path to running back Vincent Smith as the South Carolina end delivered a bone-crunching hit. Smith's helmet and the ball were knocked lose and Clowney reached down and recovered the fumble. "The next day, it was on ESPN over and over and over," Clowney said. "I was like 'Well, I know it's a big hit now." A few million views on YouTube, countless GIFs and a T-shirt later, it became a play that jumpstarted the Gamecocks star's campaign as he tries to become the first strictly defensive player in history to win the Heisman. "(Clowney) is the best player in the country," said Gamecocks receiver Bruce Ellington. "I watch him on the sideline and it is amazing to me to see a guy that big that moves that fast. I've never seen anybody like him, so, yeah, I'd say he's the best player in the country." But is it enough? Seventeen times a defender has cracked the top five in voting -- some will claim Michigan's Charles Woodson was the fist defensive player, but he also was involved in the return game and in handful of plays at receiver -- and seven have reached the top 10. Kurt Burris (1954), Pitt's Hugh Green (1980), and most recently, Notre Dame's Manti Te'o (2012), came the closest, finishing second. While Te'o's now infamous narrative of his dead girlfriend helped build steam amid the Fighting Irish's run to the BCS Championship Game, he was an afterthought in the preseason. That attention won't be a problem for Clowney. Playing to a crowd of reporters that went five rows deep when he took the side stage at the Wynfrey Hotel, there's little doubt the junior, who last year was a unanimous All-American and the Hendricks Award winner, has the kind of preseason buzz that no player on that side of the ball has had since Green. In the summer of 1980, Green appeared on the cover of 'Sports Illustrated' (http:sportsillustrated.cnn.comvaultcoverfeatured8708index.htm) in an imposing image in which the three-time consensus All-American end posed with a live panther in the background. The school spent an estimate 3,000-5,000 (upwards of 28,000 in today's dollars) creating posters of the image, sending them out to 4,000 potential voters. Despite that push and 179 first-place votes, Green finished 267 points behind South Carolina's George Rogers. But where Green and others failed, Clowney could be the right player at the right time to make history. "I'd say definitely he's the best football player in the country," said South Carolina QB Connor Shaw. "He is so wide and fast that on a read option, I'm glad he's on my team and I'm not having to face him." We are coming off a season in which we've seen the unprecedented, not just with the winner as Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel broke through as the first freshman recipient, but also with Te'o, whose 1,706 points in December's voting were the most ever for a defensive player. And in a showing of how open voters may be to Clowney finished sixth in that race, drawing four first-place votes in a season in which he had 13 sacks and 23 12 tacked for loss. But for all that last season's ceremony seemed to rewrite, Manziel's out-of-nowhere victory isn't likely to be the norm. A race where the preseason favorite (last year with USC's Matt Barkley) and the midseason leader (West Virginia's Geno Smith, then Kansas State's Collin Klein) fall so drastically just isn't going to happen on a consistent basis. There will always be certain tentpoles of a Heisman campaign and name recognition, a valuable fuel that's on Clowney's side, is still one of them. It also helps he's one of the unquestioned stars in the nation's current king conference, which has produced seven consecutive national championships and four Heisman winners in the past six years, including three of the last four in Alabama's Mark Ingram ('09), Auburn's Cam Newton ('10) and Manziel. But can the combination of Clowney's hype and the SEC's reputation help him to clear the last hurdle of an award that has been defined as much by its politics as it has its winners? Spurrier says there are no plans to add to Clowney to the offensive set. That may prove the biggest test of college football in its current form. Voters were willing to put aside their long-held stance on freshman by putting the trophy in Manziel's hands, but crowning a defensive player is something else entirely. The SEC has no shortage of likely candidates. There's Manziel, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Alabama's A.J. McCarron -- all quarterbacks, one of the power positions in Heisman history along with running back -- and those are just the ones we know of in July. But none of them had Florida coach Will Muschamp saying what he said when asked about Clowney. "I'd like to see him come out early before our game," Muschamp joked. "He's an outstanding player. He's a guy you better account for every snap. He's an explosive guy. Got great football instincts, initial quickness. He's got power. He's a guy that can play fines on the edge and power." The Hit, as its come to be known in SEC circles, simply set the stage. It's a space that has rarely been inhabited by a defender, but it's one that Clowney appears comfortable living on for these next few months. He smiled when asked if he has thought about winning the award. Can a defender break through? Has he thought about the Heisman? "The Heisman's not a big deal to me," he said. "Winning the SEC championship's a big deal to me. Getting drafted high's a big deal."
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