February 14, 2011
Happy Valentine's Day, South Carolina: Your unabashed love for homegrown hero Jadeveon Clowney is officially requited. The coveted 6-foot-6, 245-pound pass-rushing nightmare – regarded from day one as the No. 1 prospect in the entire 2011 class by Rivals and everyone else with an opinion – pledged his fidelity to the Gamecocks today in a made-for-TV event from Clowney's high school gym, beamed live by ESPN in a late morning edition of SportsCenter. Think of the additional hype as an 18th birthday present from one of the many entities Clowney's presence will help to enrich over the next three to five years, before he cashes in himself.
Of course, even the brightest recruiting don't come with guarantees once they descend from their golden cloud to put on the pads on campus – if they make it to campus in the first place. (As spurned Alabama and Clemson fans are certain to point out in the comments, Clowney is also considered a possible academic risk, to the extent that fans from rival high schools chanted "Junior College!" during last fall's state playoffs.) In Clowney's case, though, the bet is sure as they come, and that in itself is a significant victory for South Carolina as it continues to assert itself as an emerging power in the SEC.
Clowney is easily the most hyped recruit to opt for the Gamecocks since anyone thought to start keeping track of that sort of thing, and probably the most hyped in school history. The guy he replaces for that distinction, 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 most punishing and productive back in the SEC. The coup for Lattimore came on the heels of Steve Spurrier's most impressive in-state effort in 2009, when he struck gold with two of South Carolina's top five prospects, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and receiver Alshon Jeffery, both first-team All-SEC picks last year as true sophomores. That's a steady ascent in the program's standing with the state's best talent, with Clowney at the peak.
Consider the sea change in the Gamecocks' local fortunes since Spurrier's first four seasons. In 2008, Carolina only one of the state's top 10 prospects, and missed on three players – defensive ends Da'Quan Bowers (Clemson) and Robert Quinn (North Carolina) and receiver A.J. Green (Georgia) – who are about to go among the top dozen picks in April's NFL 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 join the Cincinnati Bengals as a second-rounder last year. Of the 13 South Carolina prospects rated by Rivals as four or five-star players in 2005 and 2006, the Gamecocks signed only one.
Recruiting is above all a numbers game, and Carolina's numbers relative to the rest of the SEC and the nation in the rankings have fairly steady through out Spurrier's tenure, even with the highly-touted likes of Lattimore and Clowney in the fold the last two years. (Clowney's signature should move this year's incoming class into the top 20 nationally, and maybe into the top half of the conference, roughly on with every class under Spurrier except the unusually strong effort in 2007.)
But as recently as two years ago, the likes of Lattimore and Clowney weren't considering staying home to play for South Carolina as a serious option; that's true for Clowney, especially, as the first No. 1 recruit in ages to opt for a program that's never been among the handful of perennial powers – Florida, Florida State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas, USC et al. – that dominate the recruiting trail every year. Lattimore's presence last year, along with Gilmore and Jeffery's, had an immeasurable impact not only on getting the Gamecocks over the hump for their first SEC East title, but just as importantly on the perception of South Carolina as the kind of program that can successfully woo five-star headliners from the traditional power brokers, and exploit his talents when he arrives.
It helps, obviously, that the traditional heavy hitters in the SEC East – Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, winners of 18 straight division titles before collectively falling out of the polls in 2010 – are in various states of disarray. But if the Gamecocks were only waiting for their rivals to conveniently fall into a black hole at the same time to make their move, Clowney's commitment is more proof that they're up to exploiting the moment.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.