Johnson Passionate in Selling Recruits on USC

Ellis Johnson has a lot to say about recruiting: How to build a program that is successful in the tough SEC; how he views Steve Spurrier's impact on potential recruits; and his surprising view of the incoming freshmen class and their potential impact on the Gamecock program. Read inside to get an in-depth perspective of recruiting from one of the SEC's most respected coordinators.

Ellis Johnson knows a little about both sides of the recruiting game this year. He wasn't Steve Spurrier's first choice to be his new defensive coordinator at South Carolina, but he was the "recruit" that made it to campus and kept the job.

Johnson inherits a program that includes players like Eric Norwood and Captain Munnerlyn who were not recruited heavily by their home state SEC programs, but have made themselves into All-SEC players at USC. It is now Johnson's job to turn them and their teammates into SEC champions.

Johnson left Mississippi State after four years in Starkville to become the defensive coordinator at Arkansas. He had interviewed for the position at South Carolina, but Steve Spurrier chose Atlanta Falcons' assistant coach Brian Van Gorder instead. Less than a month after coming to Columbia, Van Gorder was offered the defensive coordinator position of the NFL Falcons by their new head coach, and returned to Atlanta, leaving the door open for another shot for Johnson in Columbia. Spurrier offered, and he accepted.

The timing of that coaching merry-go-round meant that Johnson was not involved long-term in the recruiting process of the incoming class. "I was on the very, very tail end of it, just for about 10 days of actually being involved in recruiting," he said.

That doesn't mean the coach doesn't have an opinion about them, and Johnson's excitement about the incoming class of players was evident as he spoke. "I think this recruiting class is very underrated," he shared. He stated he thought the rankings the class received were due to losing some players that kept it from being a full class and hitting all of the team's positional needs.

"It was dropped down because we had three or four disappointments late, but when you measure it by the number of impact players that can come in and make a difference on the SEC level, I think we've got eight or 10 of those guys in this recruiting class. There are no more than that in the recruiting class from two years ago that was rated one of the top five or six in the country." The 2008 class that USC signed in February was ranked 34th in the nation by Scout.

Johnson is excited about a late addition to the '08 class in prep school transfer Tori Childers. "He's probably one of the most talented kids that came out of high school his senior year," Johnson said, "but (he) had to go the prep school route. That one went under the radar. You know, one of the guys that signed after the recruiting class keeps you from being rated (higher.)" Childers was being recruited by some of the top programs in both the SEC and ACC before academics forced him to go to prep school first.

In Part One of this two part series, Johnson talked about the impact players from the 2006 signing class, a class that was ranked similarly to the incoming class at #33, but includes players that have made a significant impact on the program, as recognized by several who have already achieved All-SEC status. With those two classes sandwiching a consensus Top 10 team in 2007, the Gamecocks have three solid recruiting classes on campus from which to build their program, and that's exactly what Johnson said it takes to build a winner. "I think at least three very good recruiting classes in a row is what makes a quality football team; and that's what gives you an opportunity to compete at the top level of the SEC is back, to back, to back, to back recruiting classes. It's not whether you've got a number one recruiting class; it's whether you've got a top 20 class for four or five, six, seven years in a row. That's when your depth problems, your injury problems, when all the other things you deal with, the unforeseen and uncontrollable in the coaching profession - that's when all those things don't end up crippling you as you go down through the season."

Johnson remembers when teams like Alabama and Florida used to stockpile the best players in the South and dominate the Southeastern Conference as a result. He was the defensive coordinator of the Crimson Tide for four years from 1997-2000. "I think 10 and 12 years ago, I'll use as an example, Coach Spurrier's teams at Florida were so much more talented than the teams at Wake Forest and Kentucky at that time. They could play poorly, play sloppily, but they could score so many points and get so much of a lead in such a short time that they could actually - talent wise - overcome people and overcome anything else as far as bad play. Now, they were good. They were not just talented, they were good.

"But, over my last eight years in this Conference, I have seen a closing of the gap. A lot of kids do not want to go sit around for two years at the major schools in this Conference, but they still want to play in the SEC. And a lot of those kids are picking Mississippi State, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and some of the schools that have not had as much success. And they are playing there because they want to play sooner, and they want to compete against the best and prove they are the best. And I think that the talent gap from the top to bottom has narrowed."

When Johnson discusses how he recruits, he talks about how he thinks the SEC teams across the board are the best in the country in terms of looking at conferences from top to bottom. "Week in and week out, you're playing against the best players in the country. So, when I'm recruiting players to come play for us, I tell them, 'If you're a young man who chooses to come play at our program, you're going to play against the best football players in America on average, week in and week out, play in and play out, every week end. And you'll be playing for what's been proven to be one of the most, if not the most outstanding, most accomplished, most successful head football coach in the history of the Southeastern Conference.

"'Everybody wants to beat Coach Spurrier, because he's been proven to be one of the tops in America. Everybody loves a challenge, and everybody wants to play their best when they get an opportunity to play them. So, if you're going to come to the University of South Carolina, you should be excited about that challenge and about that opportunity; because you're going to play with the best and you're going to get every opponent's best preparation. You may not get their best game - they may have a bad day - but you're going to get their best shot. Because they're going to want to beat Coach Spurrier, because he's proven to be one of the best football coaches in America.'"

Johnson brings nothing if not passion to his recruiting pitch. "So, I think we've got a lot of things we can recruit to. Not only do we have an outstanding physical complex, but we play in the best conference in America, and we play one of the best schedules in America, and we've got the best head football coach in America, and I think that brings a lot of things to the table. Why a young man would not want to be in a program like this, I can't understand. So, I think we've got a lot to recruit to, and a really bright future considering what we've got on the football team right now and what we hope we can bring into it."


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