For Gamecocks, the road to National Signing Day runs through metro Atlanta

The signing of tailback Mike Davis, from powerhouse Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain, Ga., helped South Carolina secure a recruiting foothold in metro Atlanta. (AP Photo/April L Brown)

It produced a defensive end from Rock Hill who was the No. 1 selection in last year’s NFL Draft, a running back from Duncan who many consider to be the program’s greatest player, and a wide receiver from St. Matthews who is arguably the school’s most productive current pro. But when it comes to recruiting, South Carolina’s home state can provide only so much.

The Palmetto State may punch above its weight in terms of generating top-flight football talent like Jadeveon Clowney, Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery, but it can’t supply the Gamecocks with the kind of roster they need to compete in the SEC. That means South Carolina has to look beyond its borders when it comes to recruiting, and one glance at USC’s depth chart reveals exactly the area which head coach Steve Spurrier’s staff targets the most.

It may be just 70 miles from Georgia’s campus, but Atlanta sustains South Carolina’s football program, providing a steady pipeline of talent to Columbia. USC’s depth chart prior to the Independence Bowl featured 15 players from greater Atlanta, including starting tailback Mike Davis, linebacker Sharrod Golightly and defensive end David Johnson. And the Gamecocks’ prospective National Signing Day class includes seven recruits from the same area, among them quarterback Lorenzo Nunez of Kennesaw and junior college defensive end Dante Sawyer of Suwanee.

“The state of South Carolina has been a very, very strong one, it’s just not strong in terms of quantity top to bottom,” said Tom Luginbill, ESPN’s recruiting director. “A.J. Green, Jadeveon Clowney, Stephon Gilmore, Marcus Lattimore, the list goes on and on. Those are all South Carolina kids. But the problem is, it’s not like the state of Georgia or the state of Florida where you can just build your whole roster without having to cross your borders, especially when you’ve got Clemson as well. I think Atlanta is significant.”

That’s evidenced by how actively USC recruits the area, which boasts as many high schools as in all of South Carolina. Including early signee Christian Owens, a wide receiver from Griffin, Ga., South Carolina’s 2015 recruiting class could include eight players from metro Atlanta — one more than the Gamecocks are likely to ink from the entire Palmetto State. Outside of Georgia and Georgia Tech, the programs most active in the area are USC and Auburn, according to Mike Farrell, recruiting director at Rivals.com.

“They really hit it hard, and they rely upon it greatly, and they have to,” Farrell said. “Auburn’s in a state where they’re kind of the No. 2 team, and in a state kind of similar to South Carolina that doesn’t produce a great depth of talent. Florida, Florida State and Miami come in there, but they’ve got Florida, so they don’t really need it as much. Tennessee does a good job of coming over to Atlanta as well, but Auburn and South Carolina both have tremendous reputations in Atlanta, and they’re always seemingly on the early lists for a lot of top kids from that area.”

How are the Gamecocks able to do that? Michael Carvell, who covers recruiting for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said USC often zeroes in on recruiting battles it thinks it can win, rather than going head-to-head with Georgia across the board. South Carolina also has an asset in defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, who is the Gamecocks’ point man in Atlanta, and has built strong relationships with many high school coaches in the area.

“Lorenzo Ward is extremely popular with coaches across Atlanta,” Carvell said. “He seems to be a likeable guy with a quiet confidence, and that attracts the kids. He also wins points from high school coaches for not blowing a fuse when kids who are committed take visits to other schools, or even de-commit from South Carolina. He’s one of the few coaches that truly understand that these recruits are just kids, and often they change their minds with the wind. Lorenzo hangs in there with them, and it has paid off a few times.”

Although quarterback Connor Shaw has thus far proven the most prominent Atlanta-area player under Spurrier, he wasn’t highly recruited. From a recruiting standpoint the big attention-getter was the signing of Davis, who was an All-American out of Stephenson High School, a Georgia football power in Stone Mountain. “That was one of the bigger commitments they received,” Farrell said, “that allowed them to increase their presence in the Atlanta area and the suburbs.”

Davis is now bound for the NFL after three seasons in Columbia, surely a selling point coaches make to prospects from the same area. But USC’s track record in Atlanta may not matter to prospects as much as some other factors — which can make South Carolina as alluring to them as their hometown is to the Gamecocks.

“For Atlanta kids, the big attractions to South Carolina are playing SEC football, playing three hours from home, playing for a winning program, and obviously playing for a legendary coach,” Carvell said. “And for the Atlanta kids who always get offended about not getting UGA offers, there’s also a great opportunity to go to a place where they’ll likely get some payback.”

South Carolina’s 2015 football commitments:

Zack Bailey, OL, 6-5, 300, Summerville, Summerville HS

Shameik Blackshear, DE, 6-4, 245, Bluffton, Bluffton HS

Toure Boyd, DB, 6-1, 190, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Chaffey CC

Blake Camper, OL, 6-6, 281, Virginia Beach, Va., Cox HS

Joseph Charlton, K/P, 6-5, 180, Columbia, A.C. Flora HS

Jalen Christian, WR, 5-10, 173, Damascus, Md., Damascus HS

Devante Covington, DE, 6-4, 230, Milledgeville, Ga., Georgia Military

Dennis Daley, OL, 6-6, 290, Columbia, Ridge View HS

Mon Denson, RB, 5-10, 215, LaGrange, Ga., LaGrange HS

Trey Derouen, OL, 6-3, 324, Lilburn, Ga., Parkview HS

Daniel Fennell, LB, 6-2, 220, Loganville, Ga., Grayson HS

Octavis Johnson, DB, 6-0, 183, Homerville, Ga., Clinch County HS

Kyle Markway, TE, 6-4, 219, St. Louis, Mo., St. John Vianney HS

Dexter Neal, WR, 6-2, 197, Stone Mountain, Ga., Stephenson HS

Lorenzo Nunez, QB, 6-2, 190, Kennesaw, Ga., Harrison HS

Christian Pellage, OL, 6-6, 291, Brooksville, Fla., Nature Coast HS

Connor Redmond, TE, 6-4, 220, Lawrenceville, Ga., Archer HS

Dante Sawyer, DE, 6-3, 270, Suwanee, Ga., East Mississippi CC

A.J. Turner, RB, 5-10, 180, Clifton, Va., Centreville HS

Quandeski Whitlow, DE, 6-4, 228, Opelika, Ala., Opelika HS

Antoine Wilder, DB, 5-11, 172, Atlanta, Ga., Hapeville Charter HS