Devin Washington was at the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1 when Jadeveon Clowney delivered the hit heard ’round the college football world.
The USC defensive end commitment from Orlando, Fla., had an end zone seat near the pirate ship at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. He was among the USC fans grumbling over a controversial first-down call one play before.
Then, it happened.
“It was out of nowhere,” Washington said of Clowney’s hit on Wolverines tailback Vincent Smith. “When the hit happened, people went into an uproar. I was screaming, but some people were shocked at what just happened. We celebrated that one hit for the rest of the game.”
Clowney’s rising star power is one reason South Carolina will sign a bigger-than-normal amount of defensive line prospects in February, recruits and national analysts say. Players also are attracted to the recent success of the defensive line as a whole, as well as the Gamecocks’ history of player development at the position.
“You’re not going to win in the SEC without a good defensive line,” said Keith Niebuhr, national recruiting analyst for 247Sports.com. “There’s no mystery that South Carolina has had these two big seasons in a row, and what’s the strength of the team? To me, it’s the defensive line.”
Twelve of the Gamecocks’ 19 commitments for the 2013 class are slated to play defense in college. Of the still-growing group, six played defensive line in high school.
“It’s the hardest position to recruit because everybody wants them,” USC defensive line coach Brad Lawing said. “You’re always looking for defensive linemen. Everybody wants those guys, so there’s always a lot of competition.”
South Carolina tries to sign several linemen on both sides of the ball every year. For defensive tackles and ends, it’s a case of supply and demand, Lawing said, and the two don’t always match up.
“Some years, you sign a few more,” Lawing said. “You may have a goal of six or seven and then get three. You may have a goal of three or four, and there are six or seven out there.”
The six players from the defensive line slated to sign this cycle will be the second-most at the position under Steve Spurrier, behind the seven-member 2011 class that include Clowney, the Dixon brothers and Kelcy Quarles. The 2007 class boasted five linemen, including Cliff Matthews, Travian Robinson and Melvin Ingram.
Clowney by himself is a major recruiting tool. Playing with the best of the best is very attractive, Niebuhr said. Lawing agrees.
“People look at him, and they figure, if it was a good enough place for him to go play, then maybe it is for them,” Lawing said. “Good players want to play with good players. He’s helped attract some guys in here in this class coming up.”
Clowney’s hit in the Outback Bowl opened the eyes of recruits on Twitter, Washington said. And his presence is already paying dividends for next year’s recruiting cycle.
This past week, five-star junior defensive end Da’Shawn Hand of Woodbridge, Va. — considered by many to be 2014’s No. 1 prospect — included South Carolina among his favorite five schools.
In an interview with Rivals.com, Hand said: “South Carolina, I want you to print this: Jadeveon Clowney, Jadeveon Clowney, Jadeveon Clowney. My goodness, that hit he laid on Michigan was amazing, and he’s my idol in football. People always ask me, ‘Don’t you want to be better than him and do your own thing?’ and I always tell them, I want to follow in his footsteps and learn what he learned and become as great as he is. If people think I’m better someday, that’s great, but right now he’s the best, and I look up to him.”
Headlining the Gamecocks’ 2013 defensive line haul is consensus four-star tackle Kelsey Griffin, a 6-foot-1, 285-pound Under Armour All-American from Hoschton, Ga. USC could add another tackle to go with five defensive ends in this class, and one or more of those ends could start out at linebacker.
Future Gamecocks will follow in the footsteps of defensive lines that have fueled five straight years in which USC has approached or exceeded 30 sacks. The Gamecocks’ defense had a school-record 43 sacks in 2012, led by Clowney’s 13. The team was tops in the SEC and fifth in the nation with 3.31 sacks per game.
The need for building future depth is there. Devin Taylor, Byron Jerideau and Aldrick Fordham are gone. Chaz Sutton will be a senior next year, with Clowney on track to depart to the NFL as a junior.
“We needed to get some guys in here to get a redshirt year under some of their belt,” Lawing said. “Some of them will play as freshmen, and we want to give them a chance to compete.”
South Carolina, a school with a reputation for sending defensive backs to the NFL, has seen four defensive linemen drafted the past three years. That trend is expected to continue this year (Taylor) and next (Clowney and Sutton).
The development of players such as Taylor into a pro prospect isn’t lost on recruits.
Taylor was the 93rd-best defensive end in the country when he signed out of Beaufort High in 2008, according to Scout.com. CBS Sports ranks him the No. 18 defensive end in this NFL class and projects him as a fifth- to sixth-round selection.
Taylor finished his USC career with 35.5 tackles for loss and 18.5 sacks, both ranking among the school’s historical top 10.
And don’t discount Lawing’s influence on the attractiveness of playing for South Carolina’s defensive line, recruits say. Lawing, who just finished his 17th season as a USC assistant, is regarded as a good teacher and recruiter, in addition to his prowess as a defensive line coach.
“South Carolina is one of those schools that develop kids that are overlooked,” said Washington, whose 30-plus scholarship offers included two SEC schools: USC and Ole Miss. “They’re one of the only SEC schools that had faith in me. They saw what they could build on, and I really liked that.”
The big bowl hit reminded Washington that he’ll be working alongside Clowney in a few months. While that moment can be part of a recruiting pitch, Washington hopes it’s just a starting point.
“It’s definitely a plus for the program,” he said, “but you don’t want recruits to come just because of the hype. You want them to come because they want to be there.”
Video: Meet Devin Washington
Large in size
South Carolina is poised to sign at least six players who play defensive line in high school, the second time that’s happened in the Steve Spurrier era. A look at the largest D-line classes under Spurrier.
Kelsey Griffin, DT, Hochston, Ga.
Devante Covington, DE, Rockingham, NC
David Johnson, DE, Lithonia, Ga.
*Gerald Turner, DE, Goose Creek, SC
Kendal Vickers, DE, Havelock, NC
Devin Washington, DE, Orlando, Fla
Jadeveon Clowney, DE
Gerald Dixon, DE
Gerald Dixon Jr., DT
Phillip Dukes, DT
Deon Green, DE
Mason Harris, DE
Kelcy Quarles, DT
Ladi Ajiboye, DT
Melvin Ingram, DE
Cliff Matthews, DE
Travian Robertson, DE
y-Weslye Saunders, DE
*-could play linebacker
y-played TE in college