South Carolina recruits lead Gamecocks’ surge
When defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was being recruited out of Rock Hill, South Carolina wasn’t the winningest program trying to sign him.
After seeing former USC cornerback Stephon Gilmore, another Rock Hill native, pick the Gamecocks two years earlier, Clowney, then the No. 1 recruit in the nation, said he always knew he wanted to join him.
“I said, I just want to go there and help them win,” Clowney said. “That’s why I came here — because they were on the rise and I wanted to be a part of that.”
The No. 3 Gamecocks ride a 10-game win streak dating back to last year into this week’s game at No. 9 LSU (8 p.m.). They come off a school-record 11-win season.
The signing of the state’s best players over the last four years is the main reason for the change in the program’s fortunes. Thirteen starters graduated from a South Carolina high school, including two players who were recognized as Mr. Football, awarded to the state’s top high school senior — Clowney and star junior tailback Marcus Lattimore.
“South Carolina has had a long history of really good players in the state that we haven’t gotten,” USC recruiting coordinator Steve Spurrier Jr. said. “The difference the players in this state have made to our program is unbelievable.”
Having some imagination
Former recruiting coordinator Shane Beamer, now an assistant at Virginia Tech, was reading an article on ESPN.com when he saw a stunning statistic.
Over the last 10 years, South Carolina was a top-five state for producing first-round NFL talent, but out of the approximately 20 players listed, only three or four had attended USC or Clemson.
“We used that quite a bit in recruiting to say, ‘Look at all of this talent coming out of this state. If you guys would just stay at home and play for the University of South Carolina, there’s no telling how good USC could be,’” Beamer said.
Goose Creek head coach Chuck Reedy said 64 players from South Carolina chose to go out of state for college and ended up on an NFL roster from 1992 to 2010, which he referred to as nearly “two decades of mediocrity” for both USC and Clemson.
He was an assistant at South Carolina in 1996 and recalls looking down at the roster and realizing what the biggest problem for the team was.
“A third of the roster was from Florida,” Reedy said. “Those were guys that Florida didn’t recruit. I mean, it’s like you’re taking guys that Florida didn’t want and then you think you’re going to go down and beat Florida. Well, it’s not going to happen.”
Beamer said the first part of turning that talent into Gamecocks was repairing relationships with high school coaches. He’d heard a lot of talk among them that their schools hadn’t had a visit from a USC recruiter in years.
Beamer said the staff made an effort to be visible in the schools, regardless of whether they were recruiting a player from there or not, and would attend coaches’ clinics where the state’s high school coaches were present.
Reedy, who coached offensive lineman Brandon Shell at Goose Creek High School, said Spurrier Jr. recruits at his school and has been a consistent presence, even when Reedy would tell him there weren’t any Division-I prospects on the team.
“He developed relationships with the school,” Reedy said. “When we did have our first really good player, Brandon Shell, he already had a good relationship and a good foundation at Goose Creek.”
In order to recruit high-caliber players like Gilmore, who was Mr. Football his senior year, Beamer said it was important to challenge players like him, spur DeVonte Holloman and former USC wide receiver Alshon Jeffery to have a vision for a program that had never been a contender in the SEC.
“What we told them was, ‘You can go to Alabama or go to LSU and accomplish something that’s already been done, where they’ve won championships, or you can stay at home and do something that’s never been done before,’” Beamer said. “That’s winning a championship and bringing consistent winning to South Carolina. If you do that in this state, you’ll be remembered forever.”
Beamer said every program encounters some in-state recruits insistent on going out of state because they’ve lived somewhere their entire life and want to do something different.
USC head coach Steve Spurrier said that with football, more than other sports, those situations are rare.
“It just seems like with football players, if they can get what they’re looking for in a college — compete at a high level, academics — and it’s close to home, a lot of football players stay close to home,” he said. “A lot of the other sports, players will travel all over the country. It seems like football players want to play within three or four hours, so their parents and friends and everybody can see them play.”
When Spurrier went to Greenwood High to meet Sam Montgomery, now an LSU defensive end, Montgomery walked out of the meeting, turned to his high school coach and asked who he had just talked to.
“He said, ‘Son, you don’t know who Steve Spurrier is?’” Montgomery said in a high-pitched voice, mimicking his old coach. “That was the most funniest moment of my life. I said, ‘No, coach, I don’t watch ESPN.’ So then,it got passed around when I went to my basketball games, and I’d hear people say in the crowd, ‘He doesn’t know who Steve Spurrier is.’ I didn’t find out until later he won the Heisman.”
Defensive line coach Brad Lawing said he recruited Montgomery hard and wishes he would’ve become a Gamecock like his fellow Greenwood teammates, defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles and free safety D.J. Swearinger.
For Montgomery, his decision to leave had little to do with the Gamecocks. He said he’s impressed with the individuals and the team as a whole for getting USC to new heights.
“I just wanted to be different,” Montgomery said. “I didn’t want to take the same route as everybody going to South Carolina or Clemson ... I wanted to show the South Carolina guys that people from South Carolina can go around the world to play football.”
Swearinger was also looking to go out of state and originally committed to Tennessee. He said he doesn’t remember his perception of the Gamecocks when he was in high school because he didn’t seriously consider USC until late in the recruiting process.
“I can tell you one thing,” Swearinger said. “It wasn’t like this.”
Spurrier Jr. said he’ll never forget visiting a high school two years ago and hearing a gentleman tell him that kids were waiting to see where Clowney was going to end up because they wanted to play with him.
The domino effect for South Carolina really started two years before Clowney, when the Gamecocks were able to land Gilmore, who was the No. 10 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Holloman and Jeffery.
“I mean, those guys could have gone anywhere, and when they came here and when we started playing well with those guys, it continued to steamroll with everybody else we’ve recruited,” Spurrier Jr. said.
Gilmore started a four-year streak of South Carolina signing the state’s Mr. Football, getting Lattimore the next year, Clowney the year after that and then signing wide receiver Shaq Roland for this year’s freshman class.
Though improved facilities from the athletic department’s $200 million master plan certainly helped, landing Gilmore and Lattimore sent a message to other top recruits like Roland and Clowney.
“Your best recruiters are your players, and if the players are happy and the players feel like the program is headed in the right direction and they feel like the coaches care about them, they are going to do a great job selling other kids,” Reedy said.
“I think they see one guy do it the year before, and then it gets the ball rolling,” Beamer said. “It just takes one or two guys to have that vision ... I’ve got a lot of respect for those guys that hung with us and signed with us because we were coming off two bad bowl losses when a lot of those guys decided to sign with us.”
In Lattimore’s freshman season, USC was able to win the SEC East for the first time in program history, proof of what difference the state’s top recruits can make. During Clowney’s freshman season, USC won its first bowl game since 2006 and finished ranked in the top 10.
“We finally built it up to where we think we’re very competitive, we graduate our players and we certainly send them to the NFL,” Spurrier said. “We’ve been bragging about those two first-round picks last year and the second-round pick. A lot of other schools we compete against did not have that. Hopefully that’s what players are looking for.”
Spurrier Jr. said he always talks about how recruiting is a continual process of “if you recruit well, you’ll win, and if you win, you’ll recruit well.” Now that USC is entering its third year of sustained success, other SEC schools are having trouble recruiting in the state of South Carolina.
Spurrier pointed out Georgia only has two players from the state, and Reedy said a Georgia coach recently told him A.J. Green was the last big recruit UGA has been able to get from South Carolina.
“When you get players, you’re going to have success,” Beamer said. “It’s not rocket science. South Carolina’s got great players right now. Don’t get me wrong, they’re doing a great job coaching, but there are great players. You have a guy like Jadeveon Clowney. You have a guy like Marcus Lattimore, so you’re going to be successful.
“Hopefully the guys that think they do want to get out of the state will think twice about it now.”
The Daily Reveille’s Alex Cassara contributed to this story.