NFL DRAFT: SOUTH CAROLINA PLAYERS TO WATCH

FS D.J. Swearinger Round 2-3

WR Ace Sanders Round 4

RB Marcus Lattimore Round 4-5

OLB DeVonte Holloman Round 4-5

DE Devin Taylor Round 6-7

TE Justice Cunningham Round 7 or free agent

C T.J. Johnson Round 7 or free agent

Round projections from NFLDraftScout.com

Last year’s NFL draft was a testament to the talent that has streamed to South Carolina in recent years. The Gamecocks had two first-round picks — cornerback Stephon Gilmore at No. 10 and defensive end Melvin Ingram at No. 18 — which marked just the second time in school history that two Gamecocks went in the first round.

The only other time it happened was 1981. That year USC had the No. 1 pick — Heisman Trophy-winning running back George Rogers, who went 13 spots ahead of tight end Willie Scott.

USC will almost certainly have to wait another year before someone else joins the 11 Gamecocks who have been selected in the first round. For Steve Spurrier’s program on the rise, it will be worth the wait, since defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is projected as the No. 1 pick.

None of this is to say the 2013 draft lacks intrigue for USC. Far from it.

Yes, tonight’s first round is expected to pass without any Gamecocks hearing their names called. But Friday’s second and third rounds could result in two major pieces of USC’s recent success being rewarded for their work — free safety D.J. Swearinger and running back Marcus Lattimore.

Swearinger was the hardest hitter and most vocal leader on last year’s team. His film and 40-yard dash time — 4.67 seconds at the NFL combine, 4.63 on USC’s pro day — weren’t enough to put him among the top three safeties, according to ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. But Kiper said he has Swearinger as “a solid second rounder,” and ranks him behind Kenny Vaccaro (Texas), Matt Elam (Florida) and Jonathan Cyprien (Florida International) among safeties.

A second-round pick will make less money from his first pro contract than a first-rounder, but USC wide receiver Alshon Jeffery went in the second round last year, 45th overall, and reportedly got a four-year deal worth $4.52 million, including a signing bonus of about $1.75 million.

For his part, Swearinger dismissed the importance of a 40-yard dash time for a 208-pound safety like him, though he said he wanted to run 4.5 seconds at pro day.

“You don’t run a 40 on the football field (during a game),” he said. “You play football.”

Lattimore, who suffered injuries to each knee the past two seasons, is one of the draft’s most interesting cases. Did his limited but encouraging pro day workout and medical exams at the combine and earlier this month alleviate concerns of NFL teams? Will he be able to play this season? Will the team that drafts him even want him to play, or just continue rehabilitating?

Given all of these questions, how early will a team want to pick Lattimore?

“I think his passion, his desire, his character is all going to help him, because you have to have that to rehab the way he needs to, to get back to 100 percent,” Kiper said. “A team that has extra picks in the third or fourth round, I think could look at Marcus Lattimore very seriously at that point.”

If not for last year’s serious right knee injury, Lattimore might have been a first-round pick.

And at the beginning of last season, many observers believed USC defensive end Devin Taylor could play his way into the first round. But he didn’t. He isn’t expected to get drafted until Saturday, when the fourth through seventh rounds are picked.

“Devin Taylor is the enigma,” Kiper said. “All that talent. Kept waiting for him to become a first-round pick. He never did. Flashed, wasn’t consistent. If you get into the fourth, fifth round area, with a kid with that enormous physical gifts he has, it makes sense.”

Outside linebacker DeVonte Holloman and receiver Ace Sanders are also expected to go on Day 3.

While Lattimore turning pro early was a no-brainer, Sanders surprised some people by skipping his senior season. He is ranked by NFLDraftScout.com as the No. 16 receiver and a projected fourth-round pick. The St. Louis Rams, at least, seem interested in him. They reportedly came to Columbia earlier this month to conduct a private workout with him.

Sanders, who is 5-7, 173 pounds and excelled returning punts at USC, didn’t help himself by running 4.58 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine and 4.56 at pro day. How will that impact teams’ opinion of him as a slot receiver?

A year after Gilmore, Ingram and Jeffery were picked about where everyone expected, that question is just one of many in a draft of uncertainty for the Gamecocks.

“(Sanders) didn’t run as well as people thought (he would),” Kiper said. “I think he would normally run in the 4.4s. He’s tremendously quick and explosive.”