On an individual level, 2011 wasn't exactly a banner year for South Carolina juniors Stephon Gilmore and Alshon Jeffery. In fact, it was kind of a disappointment: After earning first-team All-SEC nods as true sophomores, both were snubbed for all-conference honors this fall due to major declines on the stat sheet. Jeffery's season began on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and ended with an ejection from the bowl game, barely halfway to his All-American production in 2010. On paper, 49 receptions and 46 total tackles can be replaced.
Still, Gamecock fans must have felt pangs this morning when Jeffery and Gilmore both announced plans to skip their senior seasons for April's NFL Draft, and not only because they're losing two first-round talents who could have led another run at a division/conference crown in 2012: On the heels of the best season in school history, they're also losing two hyped, home-grown recruits whose decision to stay in South Carolina when they could have played virtually anywhere was a major step in turning a perennial also-ran into a relevant contender in the SEC.
Before Gilmore and Jeffery signed on in 2009, Steve Spurrier was too often an also-ran in the competition for the top talent in South Carolina. In 2008, USC only landed one of the state's top 10 prospects, and missed on three future All-Americans — defensive ends Da'Quan Bowers (Clemson) and Robert Quinn (North Carolina) and receiver A.J. Green (Georgia) — who later went in the first 51 picks of last year's draft. In 2007, USC missed out on the state's top prospect, defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who went on to help anchor Florida's chart-topping defenses in 2008 and 2009 and joined the Cincinnati Bengals as a second-rounder in 2010. Of the 13 South Carolina prospects rated by Rivals as four or five-star players in 2005 and 2006, the Gamecocks signed only one.
Gilmore and Jeffery — both top-100 recruits nationally in 2009, along with classmate Damario Jeffery — were major additions in their own right, but their arrival and quick success opened the floodgates. Last year, Duncan, S.C., running back Marcus Lattimore, arrived in Columbia last year as the No. 1 running back prospect in the nation and immediately went about backing it up as the productive back in the SEC. This year, they landed the most hyped recruit in the nation, Rock Hill, S.C. defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who distinguished himself on a deep defensive line as the SEC's Freshman of the Year and will headline every preseason All-America team this summer.
Obviously, Carolina's rise hasn't come only on the backs of a few blue-chip natives — the two best players on the 2011 team after Lattimore went down for the season in October were defensive end Melvin Ingram and Antonio Allen, from North Carolina and Florida, respectively — but it's no coincidence that the influx of top in-state talent has coincided with 20 wins, an SEC East title and a New Year's Day bowl win over the last two years, easily the best two-year run in program history. As recently as two years ago, the likes of Lattimore and Clowney just weren't seriously considering staying home to play for South Carolina. Lattimore's arrival in 2010 had an immeasurable impact not only on getting the Gamecocks over the hump for their first division title, but just as importantly on the perception of USC as the kind of program that can successfully woo five-star headliners from the traditional power brokers, and exploit his talents when he arrives.
Clowney took that a step further as the first No. 1 recruit in ages to opt for a program that's never been among the handful of perennial powers — Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas, USC et al. — that dominate the recruiting trail every year. Assuming Lattimore returns at somewhere in the vicinity of full strength, both are cornerstones for more sky-high expectations next year.
That may not have happened without Gilmore and Jeffery making the leap first. In that sense, they may not be leaving with a laundry list of records, but they're certainly leaving a legacy.