Five-star's coach contacted South Carolina late?One interesting bit of information we weren't able to share at the time was that the coach of five-star running back and eventual Florida State enrollee Mario Pender contacted South Carolina in January about the running back possibly taking a late visit to Columbia, according to two sources close to the situation.
Pender had been committed to Florida State for months and was scheduled to enroll early but after going back and forth with admissions there, it looked like there was a chance he wasn't going to be allowed in early. Because of the early commitment to Florida State, Pender didn't have a real relationship with any other coaching staff other than Tennessee's, which was trying to turn him, but he didn't really want to be a Vol.
A standout at Island Coast, Pender was close to teammate and South Carolina commitment Jordan Diggs and the idea of a quick visit to Columbia was presented to the South Carolina staff. However, there was one major stopping point: the Gamecocks already knew they were likely to land Mike Davis and Davis was the priority at running back. To complicate matters, the big recruiting weekend, including Davis' official visit, was scheduled to take place the very next day.
In the end, things worked out for both parties. On the very next day, Davis committed to the Gamecocks and Pender was accepted into Florida State.
The strength of the classWhen breaking down this class the first thing that stands out is that it almost reads as a starting line-up. From top to bottom, the class doesn't stack too many players at any one position, but it also doesn't ignore any one position either. There's depth in the group as well.
There's no one player that you look at and say, "this guy never has a chance." It's not often that there's not at least a few guys that make you scratch your head a little. That's a good formula to create a team with some depth. That depth should also help new strength coach Joe Robinson put together better units in the future. Robinson has already mentioned the young players on campus now who should be ready to help immediately.
Finally, you have to consider the character of the kids in the group. It's a classy group of kids that do things the right way. That goes far and has been a common thread in recent classes to make their way to Columbia.
A formula for success?Steve Spurrier has mentioned in recent years that he and his staff had to change things up in recruiting from their strategy his first few years in Columbia. In some ways, the Gamecocks have found a nice formula for success in recruiting the last four or so classes -- a formula that normally puts the Gamecocks somewhere in the top 20 classes in the country regardless of the service's rankings that you prefer.
In general, that formula consists of first landing the top prospect in South Carolina. Sometimes this has been the top "prospects" plural but with a down year in the state, the staff really only made the upper echelon of talent in the state a priority. It paid off as they landed two difference-makers in Shaq Roland and Kwinton Smith. The rest of the formula includes a couple of top prospects from the Northeast due to G.A. Mangus' recruiting prowess in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and a combination of highly rated prospects and solid evaluations from nearby states Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. The biggest difference in this class from previous ones was the success of Lorenzo Ward in Georgia, specifically in the Atlanta area. Ward has been building those relationships in Georgia since he arrived on campus and it paid off with a big signing day for the Gamecocks new defensive coordinator.
Make 'em Meet MarcusWhile you often hear it cited that South Carolina has now signed the last four Mr. Football's from the state of South Carolina. And that's no doubt a source of proud for Steve Spurrier -- that much was easy to tell Wednesday afternoon. What's often not mentioned is how important those prospects have been once they arrived on campus.
In other words, it's one thing to have the hype, but as we know in recruiting it's something completely different to live up to the hype. Stephon Gilmore was a three-year starter. Marcus Lattimore is arguably the country's best back when healthy. And Jadeveon Clowney made a splash that few freshman do at defensive end, despite not being a starter.
But what really goes unnoticed is their impact on other prospects. Gilmore was directly involved in the recruitment of both Lattimore and Clowney. You could argue he was instrumental in landing them, even. And Lattimore and Clowney? There doesn't seem to be a recruit that leaves campus without mentioning the thrill of hanging out with Lattimore or meeting the nation's former No. 1 recruit, Clowney. As Spurrier said Wednesday, they try to make sure all the prospects meet Marcus. But to make it even better, they normally don't have to make it happen as Lattimore handles that all on his own.
Class superlativesInstant impact - Mike Davis - You could have easily gone with Shaq Roland here. But with two players coming off injury at running back, and the fact Davis looks college-ready already, I'll go with him. It's really a toss-up between the two.
Best overall - Shaq Roland - I'll give the nod to the state's Mr. Football here. Roland did it all for his school playing multiple positions and multiple sports. The ability to concentrate on one of each should go a long way. The chance to really beef up in the offseason should, too.
Future ambassador - Kyle Fleetwood - The safety from Stephenson was always a pleasure to deal with and just handled the process with a smile on his face, despite having to undergo heart surgery. He's always a positive face for the class on Twitter and should be a great ambassador and spokesperson for the team. It can't hurt to have a guy like him in the state of Georgia either with the future recruiting USC will do there.
Big hitter - T.J. Gurley - Gurley isn't the biggest at safety but he is fearless into traffic and packs a nice punch as a striker when he gets there. He'll have to keep gaining weight at the next level but there's no doubting his hitting ability in high school.
Forgotten man - Kendric Salley - Some odds may be stacked against Salley -- he's entering a stacked backfield and coming off a knee injury. But there's just something about the kid and his attitude that you get the feeling you shouldn't count him out. Former running backs coach Jay Graham also personally evaluated him and let's not forget how many people Brandon Wilds made wrong with his strong freshman season.
Early eval - Chaz Elder - Lorenzo Ward has been high on Elder for some time and have Elder the opportunity to play cornerback well before other big-name schools followed suit. Elder climbed up the rankings on some services and had a solid showing during the Under Armour practices. Georgia also would have loved to have the long, lean corner but Ward's early relationship building paid off.
Unlimited upside - Kwinton Smith - The 6-foot-4, 206-pounder has really only begun to scratch his potential. For a bigger receiver, Smith has excellent change of direction and may be quicker and more explosive than he's given credit for. Also returned punts for his high school team and has big hands. If he develops then watch out.
What else?- Signee Jordan Diggs actually reportedly told some close to him when he was leaving for the Army All-American game that he was going to Vanderbilt. Diggs was a HUGE priority for James Franklin and the Commodores' staff and they even may have had a true lead before Diggs took his South Carolina official visit. But South Carolina felt good about Diggs for much of the process. And his heart seemed to be with the Gamecocks once he walked onto the same Williams-Brice field that his father played on. "When I walked into that stadium, this feeling just came over me," he told news-press.com.
- Several committed players either took officials elsewhere after committing (Kelvin Rainey) or talked about the strong possibility (Jody Fuller, Darius English, Jhaustin Thomas, Rico McWilliams), but South Carolina felt good about holding onto all of them, and few even followed through. No prospect that publicly committed to the Gamecocks didn't ultimately sign with South Carolina.
- South Carolina stayed in touch with Tyriq McCord and Elijah Shumate until the end, but neither seemed close to turning based on my intel. South Carolina did have a legitimate lead for McCord for some time and even had some key members of his family convinced that Columbia was the place for him. But he ultimately decided to stay closer to home. The Canes also sold him on the number of defensive linemen they've put in the NFL over the years. South Carolina's lead for Shumate was also a legitimate one. But there were some in his inner circle that were never convinced on South Carolina and the Notre Dame official visit flipped him that way.
- Back to Mike Davis. You have to give a ton of credit to Lorenzo Ward for working this one the entire time. Davis had named the Gamecocks his leader extremely early in the process and always had some interest in South Carolina. And even after his commitment, with two other USC commitments at the school, Ward continued to stay in touch with Davis. (The Gamecocks also stayed in touch with Rafael Kirby, but he chose to stick with his Miami commitment) When he decommitted from Florida, South Carolina was almost always the choice and that had been relayed to USC and to Davis' teammates. Which is why the Gamecocks felt so good about him ultimately ending up in Columbia despite the public drama and despite another top running back showing interest.