If someone were drafting an NFL team from a pool of South Carolina and Clemson football players, who would be the first 20 off the board?
The Post and Courier put together its projected picks based on talent, remaining eligibility, pro potential and other variables. The list might not make Clemson fans all that happy as South Carolina players dominate the top spots. However, a core of young talented Tigers provide plenty of future promise.
1. Marcus Lattimore, USC sophomore running back
Having two more years of this workhorse elevates him to the very top of the list. Lattimore broke all sorts of freshman records at USC,
becoming the school's first 1,000-yard back in a decade. Teammates are raving about his offseason workouts -- his first full offseason in the weight room -- and he's privately targeting a trip to New York as a Heisman finalist as his sophomore goal. Who's doubting him? USC scored about a touchdown more a game last season, and Lattimore's ability near the goal line (19 total TDs) is a big reason why. Top it all off with the fact that he's genuinely a nice guy -- and very marketable. Kid is a catch.
2. Alshon Jeffery, USC junior receiver
Would probably be No. 1 if he had more than a year remaining. Well, we'll presume he's done after this season, considering he watched this year's NFL draft as something of a preview. Jeffery caught 88 of South Carolina's 252 completions -- an astounding 35 percent -- last season. Jeffery had five or more catches in 11 of South Carolina's 14 games last season. His physical ability to catch the ball, no matter where it is on the field or who is covering him, is unparalleled in the SEC -- and maybe the country.
3. Jadeveon Clowney, USC freshman defensive end
This is where it starts to get interesting. Clowney has yet to play a down in college ball, but having at least three years of him is intriguing in evaluating him as a prospect. He's 6-6, 240 pounds, and he carries a lot of muscle. He's incredibly smooth for his size and age, which leads you to believe he will only improve once he learns the technical aspects of rushing the quarterback and playing on the college level. He could easily be the No. 1 on this list, if only there were some highlights to gauge where he is currently.
4. Stephon Gilmore, USC junior cornerback
Took a step back, in some people's minds, as a sophomore. He blew his assignment in a couple of key situations, but Gilmore was better than his critics thought in 2010. The Rock Hill native -- the first of three consecutive Mr. Footballs signed by the Gamecocks -- led the team with 79 tackles and three interceptions a season ago. Don't overlook his value, too, as the team's primary wildcat quarterback. He returns punts, as well.
5. Devin Taylor, USC redshirt junior defensive end
Like Jeffery, this also figures to be Taylor's final season at South Carolina. Taylor came in long and lean, but he's continued to bulk up each season with the Gamecocks. Many thought Cliff Matthews would be the team's leading rush man a year ago, but Taylor (7 1/2 sacks) and Melvin Ingram (nine sacks) were the guys hitting the QB. Taylor figures to be an NFL first-round in 2012 with even a decent season.
6. Andre Ellington, Clemson redshirt junior running back
Ellington should be fully healthy for training camp after undergoing foot surgery in December. The Berkeley High product has elite vision and change-of-direction ability, a more natural running back than C.J. Spiller, according to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. The Clemson offense took a major hit after his injury last season, demonstrating his value. In eight games last fall, Ellington rushed for 688 yards and scored 11 touchdowns. If healthy, he could challenge Spiller's 2009 yards-from-scrimmage totals.
7. Tajh Boyd, Clemson redshirt sophomore quarterback
This is a speculative placement. If Boyd proves to be more accurate and a sound decision-maker, he could become a valuable three-year starter. If Boyd is not the answer, Clemson has only three true freshmen in the pipeline. The sophomore takes over as the starting quarterback this year and has an elite arm, good feet and emerging leadership skills. Clemson's season, perhaps its next several seasons, depend on the right arm and decision-making of Boyd.
8. Tony Steward, Clemson freshman linebacker
Clemson's signing day prize. Steward is a throwback, three-down middle linebacker. He has the size (6-2, 225) to play in traffic and the speed to track down ball carriers from sideline to sideline. Clemson has struggled to find difference-makers at linebacker in recent years, but that figures to change soon, with this potential centerpiece player.
9. DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson sophomore receiver
Hopkins set numerous freshman receiving records last fall and really came on in the second half, with two 100-yard games. Hopkins has rare hands and high-pointing ability, and could be Clemson's first 1,000-yard receiver since Aaron Kelly in 2007.
10. DeVonte Holloman, USC junior spur linebacker
Holloman made the jump from boundary safety to spur in the spring, one that USC defensive head coach Ellis Johnson believes is long overdue. Holloman's athleticism and size (6-2, 225) will be more of an asset, in Johnson's mind, if he is closer to the ball and the line of scrimmage. The move should be a good one for Holloman's present and future.
11. Sammy Watkins, Clemson freshman receiver
Watkins has rare separation skills and run-after-the-catch ability, drawing comparisons to former Florida State wideout Peter Warrick. Watkins' polish could give him an early edge over fellow freshman receivers such as Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant.
12. Dalton Freeman, Clemson junior center
Clemson has not had an offensive lineman drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL draft in nearly 30 years. Freeman has the potential to change that in 2013 and enters this fall as one of the nation's top-rated centers.
13. Mike Bellamy, Clemson freshman running back
The last five-star rated running back to leave Florida for an out-of-state ACC school? C.J. Spiller. Clemson hopes the undersized but electric Bellamy brings a similar game-breaking impact and he's, ummm, well, confident having already promised to win a Heisman Trophy at Clemson. Bellamy should compete for playing time early on in his freshman year.
14. Stephen Garcia, USC redshirt senior quarterback
We're not entirely sure what to do with South Carolina's fifth-year signal-caller, considering his suspended status. Garcia figures to be back. When he's on, he's one of the best in the league. When he's off, it seriously hurts USC's chances. He was more on than off in 2010, and it's one reason why South Carolina reached the SEC title game for the first time.
15. T.J. Johnson, USC redshirt junior center
Johnson is a three-year starter on the line, and this will be his second year at center. Expect Johnson, too, to be a captain. Whatever minor hiccups he had snapping the ball last season should be resolved. He's the anchor of a line that will feature some youth -- and redshirt freshman Cody Gibson is a player to keep an eye on.
16. Corey Crawford, Clemson freshman defensive end
No Clemson player's stock went up as much as Crawford's this spring, capped off with a two-sack effort in the spring game. Crawford has rare size (6-6, 270) for a true freshman and the early enrollee has also shown rare maturity. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said Crawford already seems like a third- or fourth-year player.
17. Andre Branch, Clemson senior defensive end
Many are expecting big things from Branch, who will try to fill the considerable pass-rush void left by the departed Da'Quan Bowers. Some analysts project Branch as a top 50 pick in next year's NFL draft.
18. Bruce Ellington, USC sophomore receiver
We'll list him as a wide receiver, but who exactly knows where and how the basketball point guard will impact the football team? Andre Ellington's cousin and a member of Berkeley's 2009 state-title-winning team, Ellington has some football chops. Including his former high school coach, Jerry Brown, Moncks Corner certainly has faith in his ability. Could Ellington have a Percy Harvin-like effect on the USC offense and its special teams? If it's anywhere near, he could be underrated on this list.
19. Kelcy Quarles, USC freshman defensive tackle
South Carolina's uber-talented ends are going to get a lot of the headlines, but Quarles, a Parade All-American coming out of Greenwood High, could be an All-SEC type of player in his own right. A year at prep school should have him in better shape than he would have been otherwise. Quarles should have an immediate impact for USC.
20. Brandon Thompson, Clemson senior defensive tackle
One of only two Clemson seniors on the list. Thompson has a rare combination of size and athleticism and could be a difference-maker in the interior of the defensive line this season where Clemson is thin.
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