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South Carolina adds Zacch Pickens, Ryan Hilinski among 18 in early signing period

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Zacch Pickens is Will Muschamp's highest-rated recruit at South Carolina. File/AP

COLUMBIA — Will Muschamp is bullish.

“As I’ll say every signing period, we’ll know about this class in two or three years,” the South Carolina head coach said. “Last year’s signing class, 16 played, five were starters, two of them were named freshman All-SEC, so it says a lot about the production we got from last year’s class.”

The Gamecocks are planning on keeping that production — immediate production — pointed skyward.

Muschamp welcomed most of his third recruiting class at South Carolina on Wednesday, confirming signed letters-of-intent from 18 prospects. One, junior-college defensive end Devontae Davis, is already participating in Belk Bowl practices while a large chunk of the others will enroll at USC in January.

“We’re going to have (12) that will be mid-year enrollees. A lot of places have one or two, three or four,” Muschamp said. “We’re able to have that many because our guys are graduating in three-and-a-half years.”

Muschamp’s third class was generally ranked 22nd in the morning and had risen into the Top 20 by the afternoon, with the chance to further improve by February, when the other signing period commences. Wednesday was a day to celebrate what the Gamecocks have and how they can influence others who may decide over the coming weeks.

Notably, defensive end Zacch Pickens from Anderson is the state’s top prospect and the highest-rated recruit of Muschamp’s USC tenure. As an 18-year-old who has yet to throw a varsity pass, quarterback Ryan Hilinski (Orange, Calif.) is already as fabled as the legendary QBs stamped onto the wall of USC’s meeting room at the new operations building.

Those two have already made it clear they’re helping USC’s coaches recruit. Their decisions as recruits that could have gone anywhere and chose the Gamecocks also speak loudly.

“The first thing you got to be able to do is own your state, and we offered four guys in the state of South Carolina and all four came. Zacch was certainly a high-profile player in our state and also the country. He could have gone anywhere he wanted to and he wanted to stay home and play for the Gamecocks,” Muschamp said. “To be able to go national and sign a guy from the state of California … he saw a great opportunity here. It’s all about fit. Both of those are really good fits for us.”

“I wanted to find the best place for me, and South Carolina’s that place for me,” Hilinski said during a Wednesday radio interview. “Now it’s time to get to work.”

The Gamecocks only had two additions to the list of players they already knew were coming. Virginia offensive lineman Jakai Moore picked USC over Penn State on Monday and Florida cornerback John Dixon pledged early Wednesday.

Dixon picked the Gamecocks over claimed offers from Florida, Auburn, Alabama and Ohio State, among others. He addresses a major need as USC only had one other defensive back, local product Cam Smith of Westwood High, committed.

Receiver Tyquan Johnson, who signed with USC last year but didn’t have the grades to get in, re-signed with the Gamecocks Wednesday after spending a year at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy.

Two transfers to the team this year, defensive lineman Josh Belk and defensive back Jamel Cook, also count toward this year’s class, leaving Muschamp and his staff five spots to work with for February. Muschamp said he’d like to add an offensive lineman and some more defensive backs, but he feels good about the roster numbers across the board.

“You re-assess where you are after today and say, ‘What do we need to target in February?,’” he said.

Two longtime commitments to USC did not sign Wednesday. Rock Hill receiver Jamario Holley and defensive tackle Jahkeem Green, a JUCO product in Kansas, each had significant academic hurdles to clear.

Green may eventually make it in but it doesn’t appear Holley will ever suit up at USC.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.