COLUMBIA — Most of the focus this summer, for those who follow South Carolina football, is on the potentially special season the Gamecocks could experience this fall.
And rightfully so. Having gone 11-2 in each of the past two seasons, they almost certainly will begin 2013 ranked in the top 10, for the second straight year. When they open the season Aug. 29 at home against North Carolina, they will trot out one of the nation’s most fascinating players, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, with the college football world watching on ESPN, eager to see the likely top overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
Amid offseason workouts for the current players, mid-June also has delivered interesting developments for the Gamecocks’ future. As USC continues to add recruits for the Class of 2014, it already has three for 2015 — an uncommonly early start for the Gamecocks with a pool of rising junior recruits.
On May 21, USC received a commitment from Shameik Blackshear, a defensive end from Bluffton who also had scholarship offers from Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Georgia and Tennessee, among others, according to Rivals. It was a significant pickup for running backs coach Everette Sands, the primary recruiter for Blackshear.
Five days earlier, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward landed wide receiver Dexter Neal of powerhouse Stephenson High in Stone Mountain, Ga. His offers, on a whole, weren’t as sexy as Blackshear’s, but his suitors included Clemson, Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Vanderbilt.
On Sunday, another Ward recruit committed: defensive end Arden Key of Lithonia, Ga. His other offers included Arkansas, Clemson, Miami, Mississippi, Tennessee, Southern California, Tennessee, Virginia Tech and Stanford.
Rivals hasn’t released its 2015 rankings yet, but Rivals national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said Blackshear and Key almost certainly will receive four of five stars, and Blackshear has the potential to get five. Since 2004, USC’s only five-star recruits are Clowney (2011), running back Marcus Lattimore (2010) and cornerback Chris Culliver (2007).
“I think this Blackshear kid is the top player in the state,” Farrell said. “He’s potentially special.”
Farrell released the Class of 2014 rankings in February. For the 2015 group, he expects to do it in November — earlier than ever before, fittingly. Farrell understands recruiting rankings aren’t an exact science, and he thinks it would be absurd to rank high school players before their junior season, because most kids make their biggest jumps from sophomore to junior year. That is why Rivals is “waiting to see” how this season unfolds before ranking juniors, Farrell said.
But, he said, “Eventually, we’re going to have to rank kids before they play their junior year. The process is just so ridiculous now and so sped up.”
In the previous 11 recruiting classes (2004-14), USC has never gotten off to this fast of a start with gaining commitments.
For the classes of 2004-06, USC’s first commitment came the previous July, according to Rivals’ database. In 2007, 2008 and 2011, it arrived the previous April. In 2009, the previous March. An outlier was Class of 2010 commitment Kelcy Quarles, a defensive tackle whose father played for the Gamecocks. He pledged in November 2008. Similarly, for the Class of 2012, USC got running back Kendric Salley in December 2010. In the 2013 and 2014 classes, USC’s first commitment happened the previous January.
But now, for the Class of 2015, USC got its first commitment in May 2013 — nearly two years before recruits can make commitments binding by signing letters of intent in February 2015. Until then, a recruit can change his mind and commit to another school if he so desires.
USC having this many commitments so early only continues a recent trend in college football. For the classes of 2007-09, USC had four commitments by the end of the previous June. USC’s end-of-June commitment numbers the next four years: 10, six, nine and 14. For the Class of 2014, USC already has five commitments, though the Gamecocks will be limited on the number of recruits they can take for 2014 because they have just three scholarship seniors.
The Gamecocks are not unusual in their early start for 2015. Tennessee already has four commitments, Alabama three. Five other Southeastern Conference schools have one, for a league total of 15.
Florida State is the only Atlantic Coast Conference school with a 2015 commitment. The Seminoles have three, including one who pledged in February 2012, when he was just a freshman. Consider that for the Class of 2013 (the group that signed in February), just five SEC players committed to the school they signed with before their junior year — 10 fewer than now. Georgia had two such commitments. Alabama, Tennessee and Texas A&M each had one.
Farrell wouldn’t be surprised if this trend of pre-junior year commitments sticks.
“Nowdays, if you see a kid that you really like at your camp (on campus for prospective recruits), not only do you need to offer him, but if he’s interested in committing, you need to get the commitment as well,” Farrell said. “It’s sped up that much. You might as well reel them in.”
When an offer arrives early, Farrell said players who commit two years before signing day might feel relieved about supposedly finishing the stressful recruiting process. But commitments don’t keep coaches from continuing to pursue elite prospects like Blackshear.
“Recruiting hasn’t even started for these kids,” Farrell said. “A commitment this early, to me, is just a very strong indication of who the team to beat is.
“This isn’t to say that South Carolina should say (to a player who wants to commit early), ‘No, slow down, son.’ They should take the commitment. They’re not going to point any of this stuff out to them (about other schools still recruiting them). And they shouldn’t.”
Farrell said most kids stick with their commitments, but schools like Clemson know how fickle commitments can be. Last June, the Tigers got one from defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, Rivals’ No. 1 overall recruit for 2013. Five months later, he reneged on his commitment and eventually signed with Mississippi.
Of course, there are always rare players whose potential is obvious early. Dylan Moses is a rising ninth-grader in Baton Rouge, La., who already has offers from Alabama, Florida, Florida State, LSU, Nebraska, Texas, UCLA and Mississippi.
For several years, the Gamecocks’ coaches have been able to track in-state prospects since they were young. When Steve Spurrier took over in 2005, he wasn’t completely familiar with Palmetto State recruiting, let alone its eighth-grade players. His son and recruiting coordinator, Steve Jr., was on his father’s first USC staff, and struggled with early recruiting trips.
“We were behind and Clemson was ahead of us, well ahead of us (in recruiting),” Spurrier Jr. said in March. “This was before GPS. I’ve got a map and I’ve got dots all over it for where the schools are. I’m just driving down the road, trying to figure out where I’m going. It took me all day just to get school to school. Oh man, those were tough days. You’d get lost and pull into the gas station, like, ‘Where’s the next school at?’”
Now, the staff is comfortable enough with roads and recruiting here that, as of March, it had already offered scholarships to two in-state ninth graders.
“Because we’ve watched them for two years,” Spurrier Jr. said. “We know who our schools are, who the players are. That certainly makes a difference, being in those schools.”