ROCK HILL -- South Carolina had to wait 12 additional days to complete its 2011 recruiting class. Jadeveon Clowney made sure it was worth the wait for Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks.

The nation's top recruit thrilled thousands of USC fans -- and surprised very few people -- when he put on a South Carolina cap in his high school auditorium Monday morning.

The 6-6 defensive end from South Pointe High School has long been considered in USC's back pocket. But Dabo Swinney and Clemson made a furious charge in the end, forcing Clowney to step back and think about his decision -- even past Feb. 2, National Signing Day. He told his mother a week ago that he had settled on the Gamecocks.

Clowney's signed letter of intent arrived at USC just before noon Monday.

"We got some wonderful news this morning," Spurrier said. "We're excited about Jadeveon. Our fans are really going to love this young man. … The way he loves to play the game with passion, our fans are really going to enjoy watching him play."

Clowney becomes the third consecutive South Carolina Mr. Football to stay home and choose the Gamecocks, following former South Pointe teammate Stephon Gilmore in 2009 and Byrnes' Marcus Lattimore a year ago.

"This was a big day for us," Spurrier said. "Signing players like Jadeveon ups our expectations. Certainly that's what we want to do. We want to raise our expectations as high as we can around here. We want to achieve the SEC championship -- or more -- in the next three or four years."

By no coincidence, Gilmore and Lattimore -- along with another former South Pointe standout, DeVonte Holloman -- were instrumental in recruiting Clowney to join them.

Defensive head coach Ellis Johnson was the first USC assistant to recruit Clowney, when he was a sophomore, but there was only so much he could do as a coach, at least compared to the current players.

"That's an element of trust," Johnson said. "That's not a recruiter trying to show you all the good stuff; that's somebody who's there, been there two years, telling you. He'd say, 'What do you think?' They'd say, 'Glad I did it.' That's a huge deal."

In addition to having former teammates, South Carolina's biggest selling points were proximity -- Rock Hill and Columbia are separated by 80 miles on Interstate 77 -- and the fact that the Gamecocks play in the Southeastern Conference.

"He wanted to play in the SEC," said Josenna, Clowney's mother. "I didn't know the difference between the ACC and the SEC. I was like, 'Why don't you like North Carolina or any of those?' Someone finally explained to me that they weren't in the SEC."

Sources told The Post and Courier last month that Clowney was behind the 8-ball when it came to qualifying academically. They said he would need a "big" semester in the classroom to make it by the NCAA's standards. A story in Saturday's New York Times highlighted those concerns, even quoting one of Clowney's high school teachers.

Everyone on Monday, though, backed up Clowney's academic record. Everyone from Spurrier to his former high school coach, to Clowney himself, defended his grades.

"Academically, he's actually a lot better off than a lot of our signees at this time," Spurrier said. "We fully anticipate he's going to make it. He's in pretty good shape up there."

Just how good will Clowney be on the field? That much will not be known for certain until the fall, but hopes are in the stratosphere for what some recruiting analysts have called the best high school prospect in the past 15 years. Johnson said Clowney is the best defensive line prospect he's seen since William Perry came out of Aiken.

Bobby Carroll, who coached Clowney at South Pointe, said he's heard NFL scouts call him the LeBron James of high school football. He also said he believes Clowney could play in the NFL tomorrow.

"You could put (Baltimore Ravens tackle) Michael Oher in front of him and I don't believe Michael Oher would block him -- not on a continuous deal," Carroll said. "Clowney would get him. He's going to get him."

Clemson moved into the picture for Clowney, his mom said, when Swinney made his in-home visit. There, he convinced the Clowneys to come for an official visit in late January. It went well enough that it forced Clowney to legitimately consider the Tigers.

Johnson theorized that having only two official visitors that weekend -- compared to a dozen or so when he came to USC in the fall -- allowed Clemson's coaches to really focus on Clowney. His mother said a few times that she felt more comfortable talking with Clemson's coaches than even members of South Carolina's staff. But she also admitted she didn't get to know the Tigers assistants until late in the process.

"When they had not really been considering it, I think it kind of confused them," Johnson said. "Had they been considering it all along, I think they would have known more about it. Frankly, he's probably been on (South Carolina's) campus 15 times. I think he's probably been over to Clemson three or four. It's a very impressive place. It was a good recruiting battle."

Clowney had long-standing bonds with both Johnson and defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. Ward said he asked Clowney at one point to call him every day, just to talk about anything in his life.

"And he did it," Ward said.

The recruiting process is over for Clowney. College, itself, is the next phase.

When he spoke Monday morning with Johnson, he told him he was ready to help the Gamecocks.

"Oh, I'm going to play," Clowney said. "That's how I am. I'm confident. That's how I feel, walking in there. That's how I felt when I came here. That's how I feel about going there. I'm going to play."

The feeling is that Clowney will not only play; he'll be a star.

"I imagine there are going to be tremendous highlights when he gets there and plays in the SEC," Carroll said.