One of the most intriguing storylines of the 2011 football season is to watch how South Carolina deals with becoming a favorite after years of playing as the underdog.
A year after winning the SEC East, they are the chic pick to re-emerge in Atlanta this December. However, the Gamecocks’ transition won’t just take place on the field.
In fact, the coaches’ ability to deal with the pressures and difficulties of being a serious factor in recruiting might be even more interesting.
The Gamecocks didn’t sign a highly rated class in February – their solid rankings were based mostly on the group’s shear size more so than its individual quality – but they did ink the nation’s No. 1 prospect, Jadeveon Clowney. USC became the first school without a national championship to sign the nation’s top-ranked prospect according to Rivals, joining Texas, Florida State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Florida, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Tennessee.
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Sure, Clowney made an individual decision and that may not signal that the Gamecocks are set to starting reeling in the nation’s best on the yearly basis. However, he stood on a raised pulpit for many months before his announcement and then climbed to an even greater platform to trumpet USC and everything that it offered on Valentine’s Day.
His decision to play for the Gamecocks could have a far-reaching impact even greater than what he’s able to do on the field. USC is already beginning to take over instate recruiting, something the Gamecocks haven’t done with regularity against Clemson in years and perhaps ever. If USC can start having similar success against the Georgias, Floridas and North Carolinas in neighboring states, Steve Spurrier and Co. could be on the verge of building a powerhouse.
However, there are many pitfalls that the Gamecocks must avoid to make that happen. Many of them are on the field, but don’t underestimate the impact that a few bad recruiting decisions can have on a program’s future.
Now that the Gamecocks have established themselves as a legitimate contender in the SEC, they are going to find themselves in the enviable situation of being an attractive destination for prospects. USC now has all the tangibles to compete with other SEC and ACC schools for elite talent.
However, this reality is a double-edged sword. Sure, it’s much easier to attract the nation’s best when their already interested in what you offer, but that doesn’t mean you should be interested.
Recruiting is an inexact science, especially for programs that don’t necessarily know what they are shopping for. The programs that most often maximize their talent sign players that fit what they do. In other words, the most talented player isn’t always the best player for your system.
And this goes beyond offensive and defensive schemes. For a player to reach his potential, his personality and character must also fit the culture within the program that he’s joining. For example, a prospect from Miami may fit perfectly with the Hurricanes but became a cancer with the Gamecocks.
If USC keeps winning, prospects may start throwing themselves at the program. If and when that happens, the coaching staff must ensure that it sticks to the plan that helped the Gamecocks emerge from mediocrity in the first place. Too many recruiting misses could derail the upward trend that USC is riding.
The Class of 2012 will be good practice for Spurrier and Co. With only 14 projected scholarship openings, the program will have to be picky and careful with commitments in the rising senior class. Those are traits that could prove quite beneficial down the road.