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Young and cocky: The best and brightest of South Carolina athletics’ future

First look: USC D-lineman Zacch Pickens

Zacch Pickens and South Carolina begin spring practice for the 2019 football season at Jerri & Steve Spurrier Football Indoor Practice Facility Wednesday Feb. 27, 2019, in Columbia, SC.
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Zacch Pickens and South Carolina begin spring practice for the 2019 football season at Jerri & Steve Spurrier Football Indoor Practice Facility Wednesday Feb. 27, 2019, in Columbia, SC.

South Carolina has welcomed a flood of new athletes over the past month-plus, with incoming freshmen moving in and rising sophomores settling in for summer classes and workouts.

We’ve still got a few months before any of these youngsters take the field for the Gamecocks, but across the board, there’s plenty of promise for the future — women’s basketball and women’s tennis are welcoming No. 1-ranked recruiting classes, football has its first five-star recruit of the Will Muschamp era and a potential QB of the future, and numerous other programs continue to stockpile talent.

So we compiled rankings of the very best young talent USC has. Without further ado, here are 20 of the most promising underclassmen in Columbia.

HOT-SHOT RECRUITS

The hype is high for these top-rated high schoolers coming to South Carolina this upcoming school year. They tore up the lower levels and wowed scouts. Now it’s time to see if they can do the same in college.

Zacch Pickens (football) — It’s not often one of the 10 best recruits in the country comes to Columbia, and the 6-foot-3, 293-pound Pickens is brimming with potential. He’s plenty big, quick and strong. He’ll have to refine his technique and get used to the rigors of battling in the trenches in the SEC but has the ability to be a three-year impact player on campus.

Pauline Roussin-Bouchard (women’s golf) — The French incoming freshman currently ranks in the top 10 of the World Amateur Golf Rankings (for reference, no other Gamecock, current or future, ranks in the top 90), third among Europeans and has already qualified for an LPGA major championship.

Zia Cooke (women’s basketball) — Highlights of her crossover sending a defender stumbling to the floor set social media ablaze, earning Cooke a shoutout from NBA legend Dwyane Wade and Chance The Rapper — and she backs it up with a devastating array of skills that could help her standout in a crowded backcourt in 2019-2020. Beyond that, she could become the new face of the program in a few years, a worthy heir to Dawn Staley’s point guard lineage.

Heather Hinz (women’s soccer) — Goalkeeper Mikayla Krzeczowski rewrote the record books for South Carolina over the course of her four-year career, but the Gamecocks’ future in net is in good hands with Maryland native and incoming freshman Hinz, a third-team All-American as a junior who was named the Washington Post All-Met Player of the Year as a senior while posting 11 shutouts in 17 games.

Brett Thomas (baseball) — A 6-foot-5 power righty, Thomas saw his stock soar late in the MLB draft process, but his commitment to South Carolina never wavered and he ultimately went unpicked, reportedly due to a high asking price. He’s exactly the kind of arm the Gamecocks never had enough of this past year and could play a big role right away.

Gemma Heath (women’s tennis) — The top-ranked recruit in her class, according to tennisrecruiting.net, already has 65 junior singles wins to her credit. Her ITF junior ranking peaked at No. 70 in the world last year, and while she has been quiet since then, she’ll have chances early on a squad losing three key seniors.

Trae Hannibal (men’s basketball) — The Hartsville product scored 62 points and grabbed 20 rebounds in his final high school game. At 6-2, 215 pounds, Hannibal is Frank Martin’s kind of point guard. An added bonus: Hannibal chose to stay in state for school, setting up a love affair between player and fan base.

Laeticia Amihere (women’s basketball) — Remember how some people criticized Zion Williamson for being a dunker, nothing more? Amihere’s also mostly known for her slams, but she too brings a lot more to the table than just explosive leaping ability. Some have even suggested the 6-foot-3 Canadian could play a point-forward role for USC. Her athleticism and potential are through the roof — the only concern is the two knee injuries she’s suffered in two years.

Ryan Hilinski (football) — The former four-star recruit has by all indications made a strong transition into college life and impressed South Carolina’s coaches. He’ll likely have to wait out the year behind Jake Bentley, but after that should be in strong position to take over the starting job and potentially hold it for a while, unless incoming four-star Luke Doty develops quickly.

South Carolina basketball coach Frank Martin recaps the impact of freshmen Keyshawn Bryant and A.J. Lawson in the win over Georgia.

FANTASTIC FROSH

They came, they saw, and they played right away. These South Carolina stars proved experience isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be with sterling first-year campaigns that racked up impressive numbers and more than a few trophies.

AJ Lawson (men’s basketball) — The reigning All-SEC freshman team member is the key piece to USC’s chance at returning to the NCAA tournament. He’s a do-it-all guard who’s back in Columbia after testing the NBA waters. A big sophomore season and there’s a chance Lawson is USC’s first player taken in the first round of the draft since Renaldo Balkman in 2006.

Brett Kerry (baseball) — A freshman All-American, Kerry emerged from a poor fall to become one of the best arms the Gamecocks had, both in the backend of the bullpen and as a starter in the final regular season game of the season, clinching an SEC tournament berth. What role he’ll play moving forward isn’t quite clear, but he’ll definitely be a major piece for Mark Kingston in 2020.

Jaycee Horn (football) — How good can the son of the former All-Pro NFL receiver be? Last season he was likely the team’s most consistent and best defensive back when healthy. He projects to start at cornerback the next two seasons and could be an anchor with his size and speed.

Daniel Rodrigues (men’s tennis) — Junior Englishman Paul Jubb earned the headlines this past season, and rightfully so, by winning South Carolina’s first ever NCAA singles title, but Rodrigues put together a strong freshman campaign as well, posting a 32-11 record and competing mostly at the No. 2 spot for the Gamecocks. He also earned first-team All-SEC honors, the only freshman to do so.

Dylan Wonnum (football) — It’s exceedingly rare for an offensive lineman to start as a freshman, and rarer still for it to happen without an injury. But Wonnum took a starting spot from a veteran, showing his mettle during the season so much, the staff had to make the switch from a player who at least got a shot at the NFL. Wonnum projects as the team’s long-term right tackle.

Karly Heath (softball) — USC has made it to the NCAA tournament a program-record seven straight times. Look for it to go eight and beyond as long as Heath is in the circle and in the lineup. As a freshman, Heath led the Gamecocks with an 8-0 record and 2.48 ERA. She also batted .314 with five home runs and 15 RBIs.

Ryan Hall (men’s golf) — Hall missed most of the spring with a wrist injury but came back for the NCAA regional, playing a crucial role in pushing the Gamecocks to the championship. He finished the year ranked seventh among freshmen nationally and his 71.00 scoring average set a program record for first-year players.

Destanni Henderson (women’s basketball) — At a loaded position group for USC this past year, Henderson forced her way into the rotation with blazing speed and a sharp 3-point jumper. The former McDonald’s All-American will likely share the backcourt with Tyasha Harris for one more season before becoming the unquestioned floor general for the Gamecocks.

Keyshawn Bryant (men’s basketball) — A highlight reel as a freshman, Bryant pairs with Lawson as Carolina’s one-two punch of hope for the future. Bryant went from relatively unknown recruit to an impact rookie in the SEC. What’s next? A developed jump shot could make Bryant one of the league’s hardest guards.

Rick Sandidge (football) — The former four-star recruit had 19 tackles, including 2.5 for loss, as a true freshman. The 6-foot-5, 295-pounder had seven tackles against Clemson. He’ll likely start the 2019 season behind veterans Javon Kinlaw and Kobe Smith in the middle of the defensive line, but it won’t be long before he’s a starter.

R.J. Roderick (football) — The former high school quarterback blossomed last year in his first year as a full-time defensive back. He played in all 13 games and started five, totalling 56 tackles. He’s exactly the kind of athletic, physical safety Will Muschamp has been looking for at South Carolina.

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