Josh Kendall

For Gamecocks, perception matters in recruiting and program building

The moment Hamsah Nasirildeen decommitted from South Carolina’s recruiting class, Jamyest Williams became more than just a good football player. He became a symbol of something less tangible but almost as important in February – perception.

Williams is a 5-foot-9, 170-pound, four-star cornerback prospect from Loganville, Ga. He’s expected to help whatever collegiate team he joins immediately.

That’s the part that’s going to matter in August.

The part that’s going to matter this week is whether Williams signs Wednesday to play for South Carolina or for Georgia. He is verbally committed to the Gamecocks and has been since Aug. 27. He’s on USC’s campus this weekend, which should help South Carolina cement that commitment, but the Bulldogs have batted their eyes at Williams enough, and drawn enough glances back, to make South Carolina fans justifiably nervous.

Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp isn’t allowed by NCAA rules to speak about individual prospects and he almost certainly wouldn’t even if he was allowed, but he’s probably nervous about Williams, too. South Carolina needs Williams on the field in the fall, and right now it needs his signature on a letter of intent to combat the perception that its recruiting class is taking on water.

Whether or not Williams signs, the Gamecocks will have a solid recruiting class likely ranked in the nation’s top 20 and including lots of players whose futures they are excited about, but if Williams decommits on the heels on Nasirildeen’s reversal, it will be not be a good look.

How things look matters in recruiting and program building.

“It does, and that’s unfair,” said Rivals national recruiting director Mike Farrell. “It’s completely unfair.”

Unfair, maybe. True, without question.

Head coaches understand that perception matters. It’s why they spend so much time and money zealously creating and guarding the image of their programs. It’s why new Texas head coach Tom Herman just hired away Alabama’s assistant director of graphics to be its creative director.

In Bear Bryant’s and Darrell Royal’s day, the “assistant director of graphics” would be the guy the football players taped to the goal post as a prank. In Nick Saban’s day, he or she is one of the most important behind-the-scenes people in the recruiting office, in charge of creating eye-catching promotional content.

In charge, in short, of managing perception.

The decommitment of Nasirildeen is not a death blow for South Carolina’s recruiting class or its program. Decommitments are so commonplace in recruiting these days that at least one website (247Sports) has a “decommitment tracker” to list all the players who pledged to one school before changing their mind (which let’s all remember is perfectly reasonable for a teenager making what’s probably the biggest decision of their lives thus far). There were 654 names on that list Saturday from the Class of 2017.

One was Jonathan Kongbo, a four-star JUCO defensive lineman who had been verbally committed to Maryland before Florida State poached him, too.

“Florida State tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Do you want to lose every year to Ohio State and Michigan and Michigan State and Penn State or do you want to win here?’ ” Farrell said. “I guarantee it’s the same message that they said about South Carolina.”

The decommitment of Williams wouldn’t sink the Gamecocks’ ship, but it would give the appearance that the ship is listing, which can be a dangerous image to project in the Darwinian world of college football.

Take what happened at Penn State last February. Seven players decommitted from the Nittany Lions’ 2016 class, leading many fans to wonder if head coach James Franklin was the right guy for the job, Farrell said.

“The perception was, ‘James Franklin is not this great recruiter we heard about, Penn State is down,’ ” Farrell said. “That’s part of the reason that people had him on the hot seat list entering the year.”

The Nittany Lions went on to win the Big Ten.

That’s the reality of fall.

This is the perception of February.

The reality matters more, but the perception matters, too.

“You have to take a chance and take a (commitment from a) kid like Nasirildeen and hope you can hang onto him and take a kid like Jamyest and hope you can hang onto them,” Farrell said. “You lose them you’re going to take a hit, and that’s unfair but it’s part of the game.”