Taylor, like Clowney, was a game-changing player

calexander@newsobserver.comAugust 28, 2013 

Being a Michigan man and former Wolverines quarterback, John Wangler took a special interest in the 2013 Outback Bowl.

Wangler watched as Michigan running back Vincent Smith was decleated by South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney in the fourth quarter. Clowney’s hit was forceful, brutal, the video of it instantly going viral.

Wangler had to shudder a bit. Like Smith, he, too, felt the wrath of a defensive player who became a personal nightmare: North Carolina’s Lawrence Taylor.

For Wangler, a big hit from Taylor came in the 1979 Gator Bowl, leaving him with torn knee ligaments and enhancing Taylor’s fast-rising reputation as a defensive force and freak of nature.

“It was one of the first games where Lawrence Taylor made a big mark on the national scene,” Wangler said Wednesday. “I think it was when people really started to realize his potential, that he could be the unbelievable player he would later become in the NFL with the (New York) Giants.

“The Clowney hit (on Smith) was unbelievable. A lot of people knew he was a great player but it’s like he took it to another level.”

Clowney will be North Carolina’s problem Thursday as the Tar Heels open the 2013 season on the road against the No. 6 Gamecocks. Just as the Wolverines had to devise schemes to try and neutralize Taylor and UNC’s defense in ’79, the Heels must do the same with Clowney, a 6-6, 275-pound defensive end with unnatural speed.

“I think everybody has probably seen the Clowney play and know the kind of player he is,” said Bobby Cale, a former UNC defensive back and teammate of Taylor. “I think he and Taylor are similar, certainly in their exceptional athletic ability, but also in their quickness off the ball and their instincts. Lawrence was relentless, going full speed all the time, and Clowney seems to be the same kind of player.

“With players like that, they’re going to make plays. What you can’t allow them to do is make game-changing plays.”

Clowney’s play in the Outback Bowl was just that. The Wolverines led 22-21 midway through the fourth quarter, but Clowney recovered Smith’s fumble after the tackle and the Gamecocks went on to win 33-28.

In the 1979 Gator Bowl, Wangler and the Wolverines jumped out to a 9-0 lead over the Tar Heels. By the middle of the second quarter, he had passed for more than 200 yards and a 53-yard touchdown.

“We had played in the Rose Bowl the year before and then were in the Gator, and I’m not sure we realized North Carolina was that talented on defense,” he said. “We watched them on film, but it wasn’t until we got out on the field that we found out just how good they really were.

“With great players like Taylor or Clowney, the philosophy is to run right at them. You double-team them at the point of attack and take your chances, hope for the best.”

But in the second quarter, the Wolverines tried to fool UNC’s blitzing defense with a quarterback bootleg. Wangler said he got a little anxious and ahead of the play and suddenly was confronted by Taylor, who wore No. 98 at UNC and was used at defensive end and linebacker.

“I tried to cut upfield but got a cleat caught in the turf,” Wangler said. “Taylor got me with a clean hit, rolled up on me.”

Taylor will always be remembered for breaking the leg of Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann on a sack. But before Theismann, there was Wangler.

Wangler recovered and in 1980 led the Wolverines back to the Rose Bowl as a senior. He never played in the NFL.

Taylor, arguably UNC’s greatest defensive player, set a school record with 16 sacks as a senior in 1980, when the Tar Heels went 11-1 – the loss at Oklahoma – and won the ACC championship. Named the ACC player of the year, he was taken second by the Giants in the 1981 draft, changed to No. 56 and became an NFL icon.

Clowney is considered a Heisman Trophy candidate and possibly the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft. He’ll be a handful for every offensive coordinator this season.

“He’s the Bo Jackson or Herschel Walker of defensive ends,” said Pat Dye, who coached Jackson at Auburn. “He’s one of a kind. I’m not sure there has ever been one like him.”

While coaching at East Carolina in the 1970s, Dye faced Taylor and UNC. He said in the Pirates’ option attack, they’d often run in Taylor’s direction and pitch the ball.

“We wanted those 185-pound defensive backs to have to make the tackle,” Dye said. “We didn’t have anyone who could block him, so we’d read off him.”

UNC offensive tackle James Hurst said Clowney has so many different moves that it’s hard to find a tendency. Basically, Hurst said, a lineman “must be ready for anything that he’s going to throw at you.”

“It’s pretty amazing to see how fast he is and how athletic he is,” Hurst said.

Wangler said much the same about Taylor. The owner of Top Cat Sales, a wholesale dealer of sports apparel in Michigan, Wangler said he and Taylor ran into each other again about 10 years after the bowl game.

“He said, ‘How’s the knee?’ and I said, ‘It feels a lot better than it did in Jacksonville,’” Wangler said. “We had a great conversation. We could laugh about it, then.”

Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip

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