ORLANDO, FL — South Carolina said a lot of tough goodbyes Thursday, one day after beating Wisconsin 34-24 in the Capital One Bowl to cap the 2013-1014 football season.
Quarterback Connor Shaw, offensive lineman Ronald Patrick, cornerback Jimmy Legree and defensive end Chaz Sutton used up their eligibility in the game. Juniors Jadeveon Clowney, Victor Hampton and Kelcy Quarles have announced they are forfeiting the remaining year of their eligibility for a shot to enter professional football, and junior wide receiver Bruce Ellington is considering doing the same.
All will be missed in their own way, but none will get as much attention between now and the NFL Draft in May than Clowney, who is expected to be one of the top five picks in that draft. As some of the Gamecocks flew home as a team Thursday afternoon and others went their own way from Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium after capping a third straight 11-2 season, Clowney heads into the future as a star.
He signed his final collegiate autographs for Gamecock fans and then hurried onto the team bus after Wednesdays game, bound for a future filled with headlines, analysis and lots of dollar signs.
"I love my teammates, everything," the 6-foot-6, 280-pound All-America defensive end said. "Its been a blessing to be a part of a group of guys like this. Everybody wanted to compete and be great. Its been a blessing to run into a group of guys like that that all want the same thing that you want, to win football games."
After a statistically unimpressive season (40 tackles, 11.5 tackles-for-loss, three sacks) and questions about his commitment that continued right through a pre-game ESPN segment Wednesday discussing how hard he has or has not played this season, Clowney knows he has something to prove as he prepares for the draft.
"I just want to come in there and hit the (NFL) Combine and do stuff nobody has ever done, run a fast 40, all that," he said. "Just show out and show everybody what Ive got."
Clowney is sure to be one of the stars of Februarys Combine, and he thinks he will be healthy enough to display his full talents there, he said. After talking several times during the season about having surgery to repair bone spurs in his foot, Clowney said following the Capital One Bowl that is no longer part of his plans.
"Its feeling OK right now. Its not bothering me. The foots fine," he said. "Right now, I am just going to go with the flow and see where it goes."
Clowney signed with agent Bus Cook out of Hattiesburg, Miss., on Thursday, according to Neil Stratton at the @InsideTheLeague Twitter feed. Clowney would not reveal his agent decision on Wednesday but said it would happen "very soon hopefully." Playing in the NFL has been Clowneys dream since he was 5 years old, he said.
"I watched everybody play the game growing up," he said. "I watched Julius Peppers whole career. I watched everybody. Ray Lewis, all those guys, just to be going out there, and hopefully one day play against a Peyton Manning, its an honor man.
"I am just excited man. I am just excited to move forward in my life."