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SEC football: The next big thing

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South Carolina sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney could be the next superstar in the SEC. (Source: WISTV) South Carolina sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney could be the next superstar in the SEC. (Source: WISTV)
SEC play begins Thursday, with No. 9 South Carolina facing Vanderbilt at 7 p.m. ET. (Source: MGN) SEC play begins Thursday, with No. 9 South Carolina facing Vanderbilt at 7 p.m. ET. (Source: MGN)

(RNN) –  On Thursday, the Southeastern Conference will be reintroduced to South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney – the man who may be more of an anomaly than football's resident "freak."

Clowney showed off the talent that made him the No. 1 recruit out of high school during his freshman campaign. The defensive end finished the 2011 season with 36 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and eight quarterback sacks, despite his backup role while learning the Gamecocks' playbook.

He forced five fumbles as well, eighth best in the nation. The league's coaches named Clowney the SEC Freshman of the Year for his efforts, and he earned a spot on several freshman All-American lists.

In football terms, he can make plays from sideline-to-sideline. He's the type of defender who can power through offensive linemen or catch a running back at full speed equally well.

His style is reminiscent of another great collegiate DE, Julius Peppers. During Peppers' three seasons with North Carolina, he had 30 sacks and received a truckload of accolades, including All-American honors, the Lombardi Award and the Bednarik Award.

The UNC Tar Heel got the moniker "Freak of Nature" for his combination of size (6'7", 280 pounds), speed (40-yard dash in 4.68 seconds) and ability to turn quarterbacks into throw rugs. He's done well in the NFL too, compiling 100 sacks and 36 forced fumbles in 10 years with the Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears.

At 6'6" and 260 pounds with long arms, Clowney already has a Peppers-like frame. And the Gamecocks sophomore has run unofficial 40 times of 4.48 and 4.56, so he's probably faster.

The two had similar freshman campaigns as well. In 1999, Peppers finished with 50 tackles including 10 for loss and six sacks.

Peppers was redshirted his first year at school though, so he went in with a year's worth of study and practice under his belt. He produced gaudy totals of 64 tackles, 24 for loss and 15 sacks in his second season.

If Clowney puts up similar numbers, it will be a long, painful year for opposing teams. South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier plans to move the sophomore between the defensive end and middle linebacker positions in 2012, to maximize his best defensive playmaker's talents.

That means Clowney has mastered the team's defensive schemes, and it also means offenses will have to account for him blitzing and dropping back to defend receivers.

Imagine being a QB, throwing an interception and being left as the only man standing between him and the end zone.

Go ahead, try and tackle him. No? I don't blame you.

Here are some more underclassmen who look poised make their mark in the SEC:

T.J. Yeldon, Alabama

Most expected Eddie Lacy to take the role of lead running back for Alabama in 2012. However, his injury in training camp opened the door for the talented true freshman to make his claim as the No. 1 guy.

Yeldon, a Daphne, AL, native, was one of the nation's most sought after players out of high school. In his senior year, he ran for 2,193 yards, 31 touchdowns and added 244 yards and a touchdown receiving.

He looks like: DeMarco Murray. At 6'1", 215 pounds, Yeldon has the size to bounce off, or simply run over, many defenders in his way. Like the Dallas Cowboys running back, he runs tall, shows a burst of speed immediately after the handoff and has the on-field vision to evade potential tacklers.

Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M

A redshirt freshman, Manziel overcame some legal troubles in June to grab the starting quarterback position for Texas A&M. After an arrest for fighting and a fake ID, he came on late in camp to overtake two others for the job.

The 6'1", 200-pounder from Kerville, TX, threw for 3,609 yards and 45 touchdowns and ran for 1,674 yards and 30 more TDs as a senior in high school. He received several state and national accolades, including being named the No. 1 quarterback recruit in Texas and a Parade All-American.

He looks like: Tony Romo. Manziel does not get flat-footed in the pocket, avoids the pass rush well and can pick up a first down running. He and the Cowboys QB have a quick release with good velocity and accuracy on their passes.

Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri

Sporting News named wide receiver Green-Beckham the national high school athlete of the year. Not the football player of the year – athlete of any sport.

He's also the national record holder for career receiving yards. In other words, he's not bad.

Green-Beckham had scholarship offers from prestigious schools across the nation but chose to stay near his hometown of Springfield, MO. The 6'6", 220-pound wideout literally stood over defenders in high school, catching 119 passes for 2,233 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior.

Even if the teams he played had someone as tall as him, he could have run by them. He's been clocked at 4.37 in the 40 and was the Missouri state champ in the 100-meter dash.

He will need time to learn the ins-and-outs of the Mizzou offensive strategy, but how hard is it to tell someone, "Go deep?" He will be an impact player from day one.

He looks like: Calvin Johnson. The Detroit Lions receiver is a big, fast target for his QB downfield. Green-Beckham already has the physique of an NFL player, and he should have no problem breaking free from defenders (or jumping over them) for long completions and touchdowns, just like Johnson does.

Others to watch: DE Trey Flowers (sophomore), Arkansas; QB Kiehl Frazier (sophomore), Auburn; RB Mack Brown (sophomore), Florida; CB Malcolm Mitchell (sophomore), Georgia; WR Demarco Robinson (sophomore), Kentucky; CB Jalen Mills (freshman), LSU; WR Joe Morrow (freshman), Mississippi State; RB I'Tavius Mathers (freshman) Ole Miss; LB Curt Maggitt (sophomore), Tennessee; WR Josh Grady (freshman), Vanderbilt.

Copyright 2012 Raycom News Network. All rights reserved.

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