Sticking near home pays off for Jeffery

South Carolina freshman wide receiver No. 1 Alshon Jeffery celebrates a 43-yard touchdown reception with South Carolina sophomore wide receiver No. 4 Jason Barnes.
South Carolina freshman wide receiver No. 1 Alshon Jeffery celebrates a 43-yard touchdown reception with South Carolina sophomore wide receiver No. 4 Jason Barnes.

As night turned into early morning at the Fairfield Inn in Orangeburg on the eve of National Signing Day in February, Calhoun County coach Walt Wilson listened as coaches from Southern Cal and Tennessee made their final pitches to receiver Alshon Jeffery.

Jeffery, a Southern Cal commitment who had informed South Carolina a couple of days earlier he was staying in state, had his cell phone on speaker in the room he and Wilson were sharing. He fielded calls until 3 a.m., nearly all of them from the Los Angeles and Knoxville area codes.

Trojans coach Pete Carroll called. So did Tennessee's Lane Kiffin, who, according to a March story on ESPN.com, told Jeffery he would wind up pumping gas if he went to USC.

Kiffin denied making the comment, and Wilson and Jeffery last week declined to discuss it.

"I'll just put it this way: It was an interesting night," Wilson said. "I took him to get him away because I knew that night was going to be real interesting, and I wasn't disappointed."

Eight games into his college career, Jeffery is showing everyone what all the fuss was about.

Propelled by a breakout game against Kentucky, the 6-foot-3 Jeffery is the Gamecocks' leading receiver with 24 catches for 443 yards and five touchdowns. He is 10th in the SEC in receiving yardage, and only Georgia's A.J. Green and LSU's Brandon LaFell, with six apiece, have more touchdown receptions.

Not bad for a player who did not make his first start until Oct. 17 at Alabama.

"He's arguably one of the best receivers in the SEC, if not the country. And he's just a freshman," USC quarterback Stephen Garcia said. "He goes out there and makes plays for us. It's going to be pretty fun the next couple years."

Jeffery, who is friendly but not effusive with the media, seems to be taking the success in stride.

"I didn't know it would happen like this," Jeffery said after setting career highs with eight catches for 161 yards in Saturday's 14-10 win against Vanderbilt.

Neither did USC coach Steve Spurrier.

"I didn't know he could do the things he's doing right now," Spurrier said. "He's a special player, no question about it."

Jeffery committed to Southern Cal the summer before his senior year at Calhoun County and attended the Trojans' game against Notre Dame last November. But some recruiting experts viewed it as a "soft commitment" and thought Jeffery might end up choosing a school closer to his St. Matthews home.

"I'm not big on chasing everybody that stays committed to other schools. But (Gamecocks recruiting coordinator) Shane Beamer felt like he was worth hanging on to as long as he talked to us and wanted to come to games," Spurrier said.

"We were always nice to him and told him about the advantages of playing for your home-state university, playing close to home so your parents, friends and all of them can come see you play."

As basketball season began last year - Jeffery scored 25 points in the Class A title game - Jeffery was leaning toward South Carolina, according to Wilson. The coach told Jeffery he would be a "trend-setter" if he stayed in state.

Wilson said Jeffery was swayed by a speech Spurrier gave during Jeffery's official visit, when he told recruits it was easy to be plugged into an equation that already works but more unique to be part of the solution to make it work.

After missing the first month of summer workouts while finishing his eligibility requirements, Jeffery arrived at USC in July and caught a couple of jump balls during the team's passing drills.

"After that, he just started taking off," Garcia said.

But Wilson and others said it took Jeffery time to realize he needed to practice harder to make an impact in the SEC.

Spurrier marveled at Jeffery's willingness to speak up on the sideline against Vanderbilt and suggest a play he thought would work against the Commodores' coverage. His athleticism was on display during his fourth-quarter touchdown catch that put USC ahead for good.

"He never broke stride. He caught the ball and put the ball away running without anything happening," Spurrier said. "It was just snatch and run and jump through the guy diving at him and go into the end zone. ... He can go get the ball."

Jeffery said he would not have extra motivation this week playing at Rocky Top against Kiffin's first Tennessee team.

"Hopefully, we come out with a win first," he said. "If I have a great game, I have a great game."

And while he has kept tabs on Southern Cal this season, Jeffery said he is where he is supposed to be.

"I'm just trying to do something special here at South Carolina."