He was called the greatest defensive player since Lawrence Taylor; he was Superman and supposedly even wore a cape as a baby. He was projected as a lock for the No. 1 draft pick in 2013, but he couldn't declare because he was just two years removed from high school.
So Clowney went back to school, and had a non-superhuman year at South Carolina in which he amassed just a fraction of his sophomore statistics, and here he finds himself, surrounded by questions about motivation. Does he really love football? Has he been skating by on talent? Did he shut it down in 2013, saving his body and bank account?
Is he still worth a No. 1 pick?
"I haven't seen a concentrated lack of effort," said Charley Casserly, a former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans general manager who now works for the NFL Network. "I've seen a play here or there maybe. But I saw it the year before, too. I don't see it being a real bad issue on a team. People were double-teaming him at times, and sometimes they had three people on him. They'd run away from him.
"Sometimes, the numbers just don't come your way, even though you're playing. Especially with a defensive lineman. You can do your job, but the ball might go away more often and you may not have an opportunity to make a play."
Clowney, for his part, says he "works just as hard as anybody." He's tired of answering questions about his passion, and says the only opinions he cares about are those of his teammates. "He knows what he does," former Gamecocks defensive linemate Kelcy Quarles said. "If you know you do a good job, you don't have to worry about it. He works hard to me. He does everything I do."
In these long days before May 8, Clowney is comforted by his agent, Cook, a grizzled vet whose client list includes Brett Favre, Cam Newton and Calvin Johnson. This is the dance that goes on each spring, Cook tells his client. He reminds him that in 2012, mock drafters questioned Andrew Luck's mobility. He tells him the story of how in the days leading up to the 2011 draft, Newton was called everything from selfish to immature to phony.
The Carolina Panthers still drafted Newton No. 1 overall, proving that pre-draft chatter oftentimes doesn't mean anything inside the confines of an NFL war room.
"These teams have been putting together their boards for six months with painstaking evaluation, and obviously, there's not a lot about Clowney that they don't know," said former Green Bay Packers exec Andrew Brandt, an ESPN analyst.
"My sense is since Jan. 1 of 2013, his status is pretty set."
This should be easy for the Houston Texans, holders of the No. 1 pick, right? Clowney has a wingspan of nearly 7 feet -- the same as that of LeBron James. Clowney has raw, explosive power, moves with the agility of a cornerback, and ran the 40-yard dash in a jaw-dropping 4.53 seconds at the NFL combine. People close to Clowney say he was disappointed in that time, because he knows he can run a 4.50 flat. He plays defensive end, but can line up anywhere along the line. He is covered in muscle and can toss his opponents around like rag dolls. He is disruptive and had 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss in 2012.