INDIANAPOLIS | Seven South Carolina football players will begin one of the most important weeks of their lives Thursday when the NFL Combine kicks off in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye, cornerback Chris Culliver, offensive lineman Garrett Chisolm, wide receiver Tori Gurley, offensive tackle Jarriel King, defensive end Cliff Matthews and tight end Weslye Saunders have been invited to participate in the combine, where they will be interviewed by teams, given cognitive testing and put through a string of physical tests, all designed to determine their readiness for the NFL, which holds its draft starting April 28 in New York.
A look at the most interesting Gamecocks storylines heading into the combine.
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There will be no more scrutinized South Carolina player, and few more scrutinized from any school, than tight end Wesyle Saunders.
Following the 2009 season, Saunders was expected to be one of the primary offensive weapons for the Gamecocks in 2010 and then be a first- or second-round NFL pick. It has been a dizzying 14 months since then. The North Carolina native did not play in 2010 because he was suspended for the first two games by head coach Steve Spurrier and then dismissed from the team by athletics director Eric Hyman.
Saunders left Columbia following the football season to attend a draft preparation camp in Texas, but his troubles weren’t finished. Earlier this month, he was declared ineligible for the combine and the draft for not filing the proper paperwork. That ruling was changed on appeal, setting up a crucial week here for Saunders.
His discipline problems in college have hurt Saunders’ draft stock but many experts believe he could push himself back into the fourth, or even third, round with good workouts. Saunders’ physical skill set always has been his strength, and he’ll have to prove a year away from the game hasn’t cost him any conditioning or ability.
PROVING PEOPLE WRONG
Wide receiver Tori Gurley dismissed the advice of head coach Steve Spurrier and noted NFL personnel man Gil Brandt in opting to give up his final two years of collegiate eligibility and enter this year’s draft.
If Gurley’s Twitter account is an accurate indicator, he still feels good about that decision. On Feb. 16, he posted, “Ppl said that it was a bad choice for me to leave school but if they only knew me and my work ethic it’s just another challenge for me 2 win (sic).”
Gurley’s size – 6-foot-5, 230 pounds -- and sure hands will impress scouts in Indianapolis so USC fans might hear his name mentioned among those improving their draft stock this week. He will need to do something spectacular, though, to make himself anything more than a sixth- or seventh-round selection.
THE QUIET MAN
USC’s most unassuming star probably will be the first Gamecock selected in the draft. Defensive end Cliff Matthews could go as high as the third round. The question marks about Matthews have to do with his size. At 6-4, 260 pounds, he is undersized for an NFL defensive end in a 4-3 system. He would be a perfect fit at outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, but he was exclusively a defensive end in college.
Matthews doesn’t care which position he plays, he said last week. He’s hoping to impress scouts at the combine with his athleticism and quickness, which could go a long way toward proving to people he could make the switch to linebacker if needed.
CAN CULLIVER RACE INTO PICTURE?
After Gurley, Chris Culliver has the most to prove of any USC alum. Culliver’s senior season wasn’t going very well even before a torn pectoral muscle ended his college career with six games remaining.
Culliver’s physical talents are not in question – he was rated a five-star prospect coming out of high school and started one game as a freshman. But he struggled with assignments as a senior, which assistant head coach for defense Ellis Johnson attributed to the coaching staff asking him to play too many different positions.
A flashy time in the 40-yard dash at the combine can blind scouts to almost any question marks about a player. If he’s in the low 4.4 range, or even high 4.3 range, he will vault himself into the conversation.
WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER GUYS?
Ladi Ajiboye, Jarriel King and Garrett Chisolm are almost unknown outside Columbia.
Ajiboye was a stalwart in the middle of USC’s defensive line but is only 6-2, 278 pounds, light by NFL defensive tackle standards. King was expected to turn himself into an early round NFL selection this year but instead lost his starting job to Kyle Nunn. Chisolm will have one of the most interesting stories at the combine, a former walk-on whose parents died while he was in college. He must show he has the physical ability to hold up against pro athletes.
All three need a good showing to work themselves into the draft. If they are not picked, all three likely would get a shot as free agents.