In preparation for the 2014 NFL Draft, NFLDraftScout.com will profile the top draft-eligible prospects from FBS-level programs. This summer series will run until the start of the college football season.
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
West of the Mississippi, the abbreviation "USC" has long been known as a reference to the University of Southern California. There are other USC's, of course, but when it came to football, the Trojans generally ruled the empire.
Since Steve Spurrier took over in Columbia, however, the University of South Carolina has steadily grown into the one of the country's top programs. Back to back 11 win seasons and the production of more NFL draft picks during this time (13) any other two year stint in school history and it isn't difficult to imagine the Gamecocks flying ahead of the Trojans as the "real" USC, at least from a national football-loving perspective.
Oh yeah, there is another reason why this could be the year the Gamecocks take the big step from SEC contenders to conference champions. They also boast Jadeveon Clowney, a once-in-a-generation talent, who enters the 2013 season as the favorite to the top-rated prospect in next year's NFL draft.
NFL Draft picks the last five years: 24
2013 NFL Draft picks: Seven - S D.J. Swearinger (Houston Texans, second round), WR Ace Sanders (Jacksonville Jaguars, fourth round), RB Marcus Lattimore (San Francisco 49ers, fourth round), DE Devin Taylor (Detroit Lions, fourth round), LB DeVonte Holloman (Dallas Cowboys, sixth round), C T.J. Johnson (Cincinnati Bengals, seventh round), TE Justice Cunningham (Indianapolis Colts, seventh round)
Top South Carolina prospects for the 2014 NFL Draft
* Indicates underclassman
1. DE Jadeveon Clowney (6-5, 268, 4.56)*
It is difficult to describe Clowney, NFLDraftScout.com's top-rated overall prospect, and not venture into hyperbole. Over the next six months, a quarterback could overtake him as a more valuable player to NFL teams. If the draft were held today, however, there is no question that Clowney would be the top pick.
The Rock Hill, South Carolina native signed with the Gamecocks as the consensus top overall prep in the country two years ago and has lived up to the hype since, recording 35.5 tackles for loss, 21 quarterback sacks and eight forced fumbles during that time. Clowney's production is all the more startling considering that he's only started 13 games for the Gamecocks, having to work his way up the ladder behind future NFL pass rushers Melvin Ingram and Devin Taylor.
Of course, it isn't Clowney's production that will get him drafted highly but the remarkable explosiveness that he possesses which leads to his eye-popping numbers. Clowney can beat tackles with his initial burst off the snap and he accelerates smoothly, gaining speed as he turns the corner. He has good power to push his opponent back on the bull-rush but uses his strength as a complement to his quick feet and active hands.
Clowney's most famous hit (of Michigan running back Vincent Smith) perfectly illustrates the explosive hitting he can provide. Many of Clowney's victims, however, are grabbed and thrown to the ground by the powerful South Carolina defender. Clowney pursues with great speed and has the long arms and strong hands to rip away at the ball as he's making the tackle.
Clowney enters his junior campaign as a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender. His ability to impact the game at the line of scrimmage is like nothing college football has seen since Ndamukong Suh was terrorizing Big 12 opponents as a member of the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
2. DE Chaz Sutton (6-3, 256, 4.82)
Clowney is the known commodity but South Carolina coaches are excited about the breakout potential Sutton offers in 2013. A highly versatile defender who earned snaps as a defensive tackle, defensive end and stand-up linebacker for the Gamecocks last year, Sutton recorded 25 tackles, seven tackles for loss and five sacks as a junior, all career-highs. With Taylor now attempting to make the Detroit Lions' roster, Sutton is expected to take over his role as the starting defensive end opposite Clowney.
The attention Clowney is sure to receive should only help Sutton, whose best traits are his long arms and impressive closing speed. Sutton possesses only average initial burst off the snap but wastes little time with blockers, showing a quick rip and a strong lower body to bulldoze through opponents and into the pocket. He is frequently used on stunts, giving him some open lanes from which to attack. He's a bit stiff in his upper body, leading to some quicker ball-carriers being able to elude him in the open field.
3. CB Jimmy LeGree (5-11, 188, 4.52)
Like Sutton, LeGree is a versatile defender who could be in position to significantly boost his stock with a strong senior campaign. He earned the starting free safety role as a sophomore in 2011 but was replaced after just two starts and moved to cornerback a season ago. LeGree played in all 13 games (starting eight times) in 2012, recording 44 tackles, six pass breakups and a team-leading three interceptions.
LeGree is quick and possesses good top-end speed but he struggles changing directions due to stiffness in his hips. He is a willing open-field tackler but scouts would like to see him play with more reckless abandon as his coverage liabilities could force a switch back to safety at the next level.
Other South Carolina prospects worth watching:
DT Kelcy Quarles (6-3, 293, 4.86)*
Though he is only entering his junior season, Quarles has already caught the attention of scouts. The veteran of 17 starts already, Quarles racked up 38 tackles, including eight tackle for loss and 3.5 sacks in his first season as the full-time starter and looks poised to build upon these totals in 2013. Quarles can surprise opponents with his quickness. He struggles a bit to disengage at this early point in his career. He is a high-effort player, however and one of several young breakout candidates for the Gamecocks.
S Brison Williams (6-1, 205, 4.57)*
With 21 games (including 12 starts) under his belt after just two seasons in Columbia, Williams already ranks among the most experienced players in South Carolina's secondary. He registered 52 tackles, four pass breakups and two interceptions in 2012 as the full-time starter at free safety but the Gamecocks are hoping that by giving him D.J. Swearinger's old role at strong safety in 2013, the big plays will multiply.
CB Victor Hampton (5-10, 197, 4.52)*
Tenacious and athletic, Hampton might be the most talented of South Carolina's defensive backs, though his lack of ideal height could limit his stock with scouts. The redshirt junior recorded 40 tackles a season ago, as well as six pass breakups and an interception. His light feet, balance and burst make him an intriguing replacement for Ace Sanders as the Gamecocks' primary punt returner.
OT Corey Robinson (6-7, 338, 5.36)*
Robinson's massive frame earned him praise as a prep but he struggled once on campus with finding a position, alternating between the offensive and defensive lines over his first three seasons. Last year, however, Robinson emerged as South Carolina's best left tackle, starting nine of the final 10 games at the all-important position. The redshirt junior's length is his best asset (as he's tough for opponents to get around when rushing the passer), but average lateral agility and balance likely means he'll be moved to the right side or inside to guard in the NFL.
QB Connor Show (6-1, 208, 4.64)
Shaw lacks the size and polished passing skills NFL scouts are looking for but gritty quarterbacks capable of extending the play with their feet are always going to get a shot. Shaw enters his senior campaign with a 17-3 record as a starter and a school record 66.8% career completion rate. He was held out of spring practice following post-season foot surgery but practiced this summer and is slated to start USC's opener against North Carolina August 29.