In the first 17 SEC championship games, only Florida, Georgia and Tennessee represented the Eastern side of the conference. This past season, the University of South Carolina finally broke through, won the division and made the trip to the Georgia Dome for the conference title game. Along the way, Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks beat their rivals and put together the nation's No. 15 recruiting class. From a football standpoint, things are looking pretty darn good in Columbia, S.C., right now.
"Winning the SEC East was huge for us," said Steve Spurrier Jr., South Carolina's wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. "It has been in so many ways. First, we had a year in which we beat Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Clemson. We got to the SEC championship game for the first time. Then we put together that recruiting class. And that went all the way until Valentine's Day when we got Jadeveon Clowney. Those things got us so much exposure and national attention. Our baseball team now has won back-to-back national championships. There's a lot of pride walking around here now and that has carried over into recruiting this season."
South Carolina is off to a fine start with its 2012 recruiting class. The Gamecocks are riding a nice wave of momentum heading into the college football season. After all, much like the game of football is about momentum, so is recruiting. The Gamecocks sit at No. 25 overall in the 2012 national team rankings with 14 commitments, including two ESPNU 150 members -- athlete Shaq Roland (Lexington, S.C./Lexington) and offensive tackle Brock Stadnik (Greensboro, N.C./West Guilford). The Gamecocks have four in-state commitments and five from the state of Georgia.
"I think winning the SEC East really helped us all over, especially in Georgia," said Jay Graham, South Carolina's running backs coach for the past three seasons. "Prospects understand we can play with the big boys in the SEC. We are making steps in the right direction. We have to continue to build on that."
The Peach State is a priority for the Gamecocks. Over their last three recruiting classes, South Carolina has signed 26 prospects from Georgia.
"The SEC is so good," said Rico McWIlliams (Lovejoy, Ga./Lovejoy), a South Carolina commitment. "And for South Carolina to win the East shows just how good they are. South Carolina is a winning program. That was pretty big for me, and they showed me a lot. Now I want to help them win the East and then a national championship. I know they are not satisfied with just winning the SEC East, and it makes me excited to be part of that. They wanted me and I want to help them achieve their goals."
Spurrier and his Gamecocks have had a busy past two weeks. In that time, they have landed one of the country's top athletes in Roland, as well as four-star wide receivers Jody Fuller (Sun Valley, N.C./Monroe) and Kwinton Smith (Dillon, S.C./Dillon) and four-star tight end Kelvin Rainey (Yulee, Fla./Yulee). In addition, Spurrier landed a signal caller of the future in three-star recruit Brendan Nosovitch (Allentown, Pa./Central Catholic), who accounted for more than 4,800 yards of total offense and 68 touchdowns last season as a junior.
"Winning the SEC East definitely showed me a lot," Nosovitch said. "Their direction helped me with my decision. It seems like every year they get better. They had a great recruiting class this past year and they are putting together a good class this season. They are getting a bunch of receivers and it will be exciting to play with those guys."
Maybe it took Spurrier a little longer than most expected to win the East, but nobody ever said winning a division let alone the conference would be easy, even for a coaching legend. It would take time, and it would take recruiting and evaluating at a high level to catch the rugged football powers of the SEC.
"Guys like Marcus [Lattimore] and Alshon [Jeffery] have really boosted our recruiting," Spurrier Jr. said. "So has Clowney, who was the top prospect in the country last year. We certainly try and use that to our advantage because these kids want to meet these guys and hopefully play with these players."
Spurrier has obviously been known as an offensive coach. Now with two of the game's best at his disposal, you know he will attract a recruit or two.
"South Carolina has one of the best receivers in the country and one of the best running backs in the country," Rainey said. "And they just signed the top prospect in the nation. Heck yeah, I want to play with those guys and that's very exciting for me. The funny thing is that I play all those positions for my high school team. Now I can go to South Carolina and be a big-play tight end that they don't have to go with Jeffery and Lattimore. I can be that threat. And I will get to go against Clowney every day in practice. I still have a high school season to play, but I can't wait to get to South Carolina."
South Carolina has one of the best receivers in the country and one of the best running backs in the country. And they just signed the top prospect in the nation. Heck yeah, I want to play with those guys.
”-- Four-star TE Kelvin Rainey
Of course, things haven't always been this rosy in the state of South Carolina. Both the Gamecocks and in-state rival Clemson have been doing very well in recruiting of late. It starts within state borders, and keeping players home hasn't always been that easy when you have teams in the SEC and ACC trying to get them to leave.
"Over the last 10-12 years, schools have come in here and taken in-state prospects out of here," Graham said. "That's getting more difficult. Clemson has recruited well, too. The bottom line is that you still have to battle."
South Carolina showed it could win big battles to keep Palmetto State talent, most recently with Smith, who chose the Gamecocks over the Gators.
"It came down to my close relationship with the coaches at South Carolina," Smith said. "It's also close to home for my family and parents. South Carolina is home to me. I am really looking forward to playing for them. It's exciting to go play for Steve Spurrier. He's had so much success, especially with the offense. I want to help him bring a national championship to South Carolina."
The Gamecocks would love to close with more help for the defense. If they pick up where they ended last season, expect more of the same on the recruiting front. After all, their brand is changing.
"We definitely get more calls," Spurrier Jr. said. "Our reach has grown and our perception is changing."
Golden start for the Canes
If you haven't been paying attention over the past few months, there have been quite a few teams racking up commitments. Four BCS teams have 20 or more commitments: Miami has 22 pledges to lead the country, while Texas A&M has 21 and Michigan and Virginia Tech have 20 apiece. What's surprising is that two of those teams, the Hurricanes and Wolverines, have brand new coaching staffs.
Thirteen of Miami's 22 recruits are from South Florida. Leading the way are ESPNU 150 members wide receiver Angelo Jean-Louis (Wellington, Fla./Palm Beach Central), athlete Randy "Duke" Johnson (Miami/Norland) and cornerback Amos Leggett (Homestead, Fla./Homestead). Other South Florida standouts are linebackers Keith Brown (Miami/Norland) and James Burgess (Homestead, Fla./Homestead) and defensive end Jelani Hamilton (Ft. Lauderdale/St. Thomas Aquinas). They are all four-star recruits.
Miami is at its best when focuses primarily on its backyard and spot recruits other parts of the state and country to fill specific needs. The Canes have landed the nation's No. 7 quarterback in Preston Dewey (Austin, Texas/St. Andrews) and four-star linebacker Raphael Kirby (Stone Mountain, Ga./Stephenson), both ESPNU 150 members.
Along the way, the Hurricanes have really addressed some big-need areas such as quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker and defensive line. They also landed one of the country's most electrifying and explosive recruits in Johnson. It all adds up to the nation's No. 9 recruiting class.
Getting this far ahead this quickly will give coach Al Golden and his staff a great jump on 2013 and beyond. And as we all realize, it's never too early to begin to look ahead in the evaluation process. Things are certainly looking up in Coral Gables, and the Canes haven't even played a down of football yet.
Prospects galore expected at Dawg Nite
It's going to be a big night in Athens on Friday, with Dawg Night taking place at the University of Georgia. Some of the region's elite recruits, underclassmen and out-of-state players included, are expected to be in attendance,
Expected 2012 standouts at the event include: athletes Beniquez Brown (Florence, Ala./Florence) and Will Redmond (Memphis/East); defensive tackle Jonathan Taylor (Millen, Ga./Jenkins County); defensive ends James DeLoach (Millen, Ga./Jenkins County), Justin Thomason (McDonough, Ga./Eagles Landing Christian Academy), Kenderius Whitehead (Monroe, Ga./Monroe Area) and Jordan Jenkins (Hamilton, Ga./Harris County); outside linebacker Leonard Floyd (Eastman, Ga./Dodge County); defensive back Chaz Elder (College Park, Ga./Banneker); wide receiver Charlie Hegedus (Marietta, Ga./Lassiter); and offensive tackles John Theus (Jacksonville, Fla./The Bolles School) and Oliver Jones (Ninety Six, S.C./Ninety Six/).
Meanwhile, members of the Classes of 2013 and 2014 should be well represented at Dawg Nite, with rising juniors that include: Reuben Foster (LaGrange, Ga./Troup County); cornerback Darius Curry (Flowery Branch, Ga./Flowery Branch); defensive linemen Isaac Rochell (McDonough, Ga./Eagles Landing Christian Academy), Jay Ellison (Hamilton, Ga./Harris County) and Kelsey Griffin (Hoschton, Ga./Mill Creek); quarterbacks Bryce Ramsey (Kingsland, Ga./Camden County) and Jonathan McCrary (Ellenwood, Ga./Cedar Grove); running backs Keyante Green (McDonough, Ga./Eagles Landing Christian Academy), Derrick Henry (Yulee, Fla./Yulee) and Tyshon Dye (Elberton, Ga./Elbert County); wide receiver Demarcus Robinson (Fort Valley, Ga./Peach County); and many offensive line prospects.
This is the first of many remaining July camps in the Southeast. Florida has Friday Night Lights (July 22), while teams such LSU, Tennessee, Auburn, FSU and Mississippi State will load up one final time with either one-day camps or their last big camps of the summer. Expect a bunch of commitments over the next week or so just like we saw in June.