KEEPING IN-STATE TALENT HAS BEEN THE KEY TO USC’S REVERSAL OF FORTUNE
By John Loveday || A “perepeteia” is defined as “a sudden or unexpected reversal of circumstances.” It’s a noun of Greek origin, and it fits the recent evolution of the Gamecock football program like a (Connor Shaw) glove.
On February 2, 2010 high school all star Marcus Lattimore signed with South Carolina over powerhouse programs like Alabama, Auburn and Oregon. Lattimore’s impact on the USC football program has been seismic. His 1609 total yards from scrimmage as a true freshman and 1,000 yards as a sophomore (despite missing six games due to a knee injury) are nothing short of amazing.
That’s why it isn’t surprising that sportswriters over the past couple of years – including the founding editor of this website – have labeled Lattimore as the “periperteia” for the South Carolina football program. And though he has been an integral part of the turnaround, the real turning point actually came one year earlier – in 2009.
Stephon Gilmore, a recent top ten overall selection in the 2012 NFL draft by the Buffalo Bills, set a new standard for USC. The standard? That the best high school players in South Carolina could stay in state and win at USC. It said a lot about the then-18-year-old Gilmore – who believed in his home state’s ability to do the unthinkable and compete consistently in the SEC.
From 1995 – the first year South Carolina’s “Mr. Football” was awarded – to 2008, USC signed only three of these athletes. Those individuals were Jermale Kelley in 1995, Derek Watson in 1998, and Moe Thompson in 2001. Gilmore became the first Mr. Football to sign with USC under Steve Spurrier, and in doing so he started a trend. Since Gilmore signed with USC in 2009, USC has inked four straight Mr. Football award winners (Marcus Lattimore, Jadeveon Clowney and Shaq Roland).
Is it any coincidence, then, that the Gamecock program has increased its win total the past three years in a row after dramatically improving their in-state recruiting? I think not (USC Finished 7-6 in 2009, 9-5 in 2010, and 11-2 in 2011).
As a Gamecock fan it is frustrating to hear pundits say, “South Carolina has only had success over the past few years because the big boys of the SEC Eastern Division are down.” No one can argue that Florida, Tennessee, and to some degree Georgia are as strong as they once were. However, the last time I checked Southeastern Conference teams don’t compete in a vacuum.
Allow me to explain: In 2009 star players like Gilmore, Demario Jeffery, Alshon Jeffery, DeVonte Holloman, DJ Swearinger, Aldrick Fordham, Chaz Sutton, and Justice Cunningham all choose to sign with USC over other elite programs. What do all of these young men have in common? You guessed it … they are all South Carolinians.
Add to that list the 2010 class of South Carolina stars: Lattimore, Victor Hampton, AJ Cann, Kelcy Quarles, and Nick Jones. Most recently in 2011: Brandon Shell, Brandon Wilds, Phillip Dukes, Gerald Dixon, Gerald Dixon Jr., Shon Carson, and of course Clowney, the No. 1 high school recruit in America.
And while there were other factors involved at Tennessee, Florida, and Georgia that led to their relative declines, imagine if USC didn’t sign all those talented student athletes mentioned above. Envision Marcus Lattimore wearing Tennessee orange, DJ Swearinger flaunting Florida blue and orange, or Jadeveon Clowney in Georgia red.
Such an altered reality would more than likely result in those programs not missing a beat – and USC still stuck winning 6 or 7 games every year.
In other words, one reason Florida, Georgia and Tennessee are down is that they are no longer getting our Carlos Dunlaps, A.J. Greens and Albert Haynesworths, respectively.
USC has also had success recruiting outside of South Carolina. Georgia is and probably always will be one of the main “go to states” when is comes to recruiting because as Steve Spurrier has pointed out numerous times, there are more people in the greater Atlanta area than in the entire state of South Carolina. According to the 2011 Census Bureau report, Georgia has a population of 9.82 million people. South Carolina? 4.68 million. And by the way, the talent-rich state of Florida’s population is currently 19.1 million.
That’s why our state must not only keep its most talented players, but continue to lure talented players from other states to Columbia.
And that’s why it matters that Gilmore showed faith in a program which, at that point, had never won the SEC East, never won more than 10 games in any season, and could not consistently compete with the likes of Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, or Clemson.
Now, USC is 6-0 over the past two years against Tennessee, Florida, and Georgia and is currently riding a three game win streak against Clemson.
Gilmore’s faith in the USC football program was matched by his performance on and off the field. He started all 27 games of his three-year collegiate career from 2009-2012, and was named to numerous All-American and All-SEC teams. He helped to set a standard at USC, serving notice that elite football players can compete – and win – by staying at home.
He was right, and the best is yet to come …
John Loveday is a South Carolina public school administrator and sports enthusiast.
Pic: Travis Bell, Sideline Carolina