FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney doesn’t know if South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is playing Saturday.
That won’t stop Chaney and the Razorbacks from planning for him for obvious reasons. The 6-foot-6, 274-pound All-American entered the 2013 season regarded as the best defensive player in the country.
"The first thing you do as a coordinator is identify players who can wreck your game plan," Chaney said. "I would suspect he’s one of those guys. We’ve got to know where he’s at at all times and have a bunch of people accounting for him. He’s one of those guys that can do a lot of things. He can definitely wreck your game plan."
So Arkansas is brushing off the fact the defensive end is questionable for Saturday’s game because of a strained muscle in his ribcage, which sidelined him for the 35-28 win against Kentucky. It’s no surprise the Razorbacks are ignoring the drama created by the peculiar circumstances surrounding Clowney’s absence, too.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier didn’t know Clowney — who has been touted since the summer as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft — was sitting out until shortly before kickoff. Clowney informed the coaches he couldn’t go, too, prompting Spurrier to say his star could "come play for the team if he wants."
Three days later, Spurrier tried to calm the growing storm by beginning his weekly press conference discussing Clowney’s injury. He said the defensive end was in pain and admitted all parties involved handled the situation poorly Saturday.
"Let me say this about Jadeveon," Spurrier added. "If he never plays another snap here, we all should be thankful and appreciative that he came to South Carolina. …
"None of us need to be upset at Jadeveon. None of us. He’s played his part tremendously. I think we are 26-5 since he suited up for South Carolina."
Spurrier said Clowney has been a regular in the training room since Saturday’s game, getting treatment for the injury and wants to play. The Gamecocks will know later in the week whether Clowney is healthy enough to do so at Arkansas.
But Clowney stressed he didn’t miss last week’s game, and won’t miss this one, because he’s more interested in his NFL career than playing for South Carolina.
"I know there’s a lot of scrutiny going on, a lot of people talking," Clowney told reporters in South Carolina. "That’s what people do. That’s something they just want to talk about. I’m just sitting back laughing about it. I know my situation with the team and I know what we’re trying to do. Our goals are still out there for us.
"I’ve always been about the team. Regardless of what people say. I’ve been about my team my whole life. I dedicate myself to this team and this university."
The question has been asked several times because Clowney’s production has dipped. He had 13 sacks as a sophomore and won the Ted Hendricks Award, but has 12 tackles and 2 sacks in four games in 2013. In addition to the strained ribcage muscle, Clowney has dealt with bone spurs in his right foot and a stomach bug.
The struggles have coincided with South Carolina’s defensive problems. The Gamecocks are ranked 10th in the SEC in scoring defense (25.8 points a game), ninth in passing defense (237.2 yards) and sixth in total defense (365.0 yards).
But South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw insisted any discussion about Clowney’s commitment to his team hasn’t been a distraction to the Gamecocks.
"Our team doesn’t feel that way at all," Shaw said. "It doesn’t faze us at all. I think it is just that everybody surrounding it is making it a big deal. All I know is Clowney has helped us win a lot of games and he will in the future as well.
"I just think that it’s more of a big deal around everybody else than to us."
There’s no doubt Clowney has been popular. He has come under fire this week because of the way he handled last week. His dedication has been national news.
Fullback Kiero Small said Clowney is "all over ESPN all the time." But Arkansas coach Bret Bielema — who will face the Gamecocks for the first time — hopes Clowney is healthy and available to play when the teams meet Saturday.
"If you’re truly a competitor, you engage what the SEC is always about," Bielema said. "You definitely want somebody at full strength. I think that’s just human nature. That’s how I’m wired, and hopefully that’s how our team is wired."
Arkansas has had success minimizing Clowney’s impact on the past two seasons.
Clowney had two tackles, both for losses, in South Carolina’s 38-20 win in Columbia, S.C., last season. He also had four tackles in Arkansas’ 44-28 win in 2011. But Clowney does not have a sack, forced fumble or any other big play in two games.
David Hurd, who started at tackle last season and will line up against Clowney if he plays once again, hopes Arkansas can keep it that way.
"You enjoy those moments because you are going to get really tested this game going against arguably the best player in the country," Hurd said. "And you just have to look forward to it and embrace the challenge and embrace the grind."