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April 29, 2012
For the second time in four years, South Carolina was well represented at the NFL Draft.
Six former Gamecocks were selected over the course of the three days, including two (Stephon Gilmore and Melvin Ingram) in the first round, which matched the school record set in 1981.
But, unlike that year, USC saw additional players come off the board in the later rounds. The six draftees fell one short of the modern record (7) established in 2009 and tied with the 1988 class that included Sterling Sharpe and Brad Edwards for the second-highest number of picks in a single year.
The school's all-time single year record of nine draftees was established in 1954. However, the draft consisted of more than 40 rounds in those days. That year, seven of the nine players were selected after the 10th round.
Only two SEC schools (Alabama and Georgia) had more players drafted this year than USC, whose half dozen selectees surpassed LSU, Arkansas, Florida, Auburn and Tennessee.
Remarkably, all 12 SEC teams had a player selected in the draft, making the conference the only one in the country to have a player selected from every school.
Overall, the SEC led the nation for the sixth straight year with 42 players drafted, one more than the Big 10 (41) followed by the ACC (31), Pac-12 (28), Big 12 (25), Big East (12), Mountain West (12), WAC (11) and Conference USA (10).
Since the 2006 draft (which followed Steve Spurrier's first season as USC head coach), 22 Gamecock players have been taken by NFL clubs with 14 being defensive players, seven on offense and one kicker.
The NFL's preference for Gamecock defensive players continued this year with four of the six draftees lining up on that side of the ball, including both first round picks.
A year ago, not many USC supporters would have dared predict Gilmore, a cornerback, would be the first USC player taken, but that's exactly what happened when the Buffalo Bills made the former South Pointe High star the 10th overall pick.
An impressive showing at the NFL Combine, together with the calm demeanor, poise and composure he showed in interviews and his history of staying out of trouble, joined together to rocket Gilmore up the draft board.
Bills GM Buddy Nix issued no apologies to a media and fan base accustomed to the Big 10 and Big East for looking towards the SEC for a cornerback that he feels could start right away in the NFL.
"He's played in the best league. That's where everybody's going. You go where the players are," Nix said. "I know you guys accuse me of going south. We try to go where the players are, wherever it is. He's played in a good league and he's started since day one and been very productive.
"You guys see that what we're facing most every Sunday when they spread out guys that have tight end numbers on them and run like receivers. They're big. You just have to have corners that can match up with them."
Eight picks after Gilmore was chosen by Buffalo, the Chargers couldn't believe their good fortune when Ingram was still available at No. 18. They quickly nabbed him.
"The versatility, the pass rushing ability," Chargers player personnel director Jimmy Raye said when asked for the qualities San Diego saw in Ingram. "We've talked about getting edge rushers and getting pressure on the quarterback for the past couple of months since the season ended. He's the type of player we felt like brought burst and energy and rushability off the edge as well as inside as an interior pass rusher. That type of versatility will bode well for our defense."
Prior to the draft, if you had asked 10 NFL scouts and general managers for their thoughts on former USC wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, you would have likely heard 10 different opinions. At one point, Jeffery was considered a late first round pick, but ended up going off the board in the middle of the second round to the Chicago Bears.
The Bears traded with St. Louis to move up five spots into the No. 45 slot in order to take Jeffery, who gives quarterback Jay Cutler another weapon to throw to in Chicago's improving passing offense.
Bears general manager Phil Emery contended Jeffery was the highest-rated player remaining on Chicago's board when they decided to move up, and that they had him pegged as one of the top three receivers in the entire draft.
"We saw a big, dynamic athlete, playmaker falling and we decided that we were going to go after him," Emery said Saturday. "We wanted to make sure we were close enough that it didn't cost us more than a fifth-round pick. We felt good about the compensation. We still had our third and fourth-rounders to work in the draft and we went ahead and moved forward with it. We're very excited to have him."
Emery attended USC's Pro Day a month ago and timed Jeffery in the 40 at 4.47 and 4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Besides drafting Jeffery, the Bears earlier acquired talented though enigmatic WR Brandon Marshall, a three-time Pro Bowler, in a trade with the Miami Dolphins. As a result, Chicago anticipates enjoying a much improved offensive attack through the air in 2012.
"We feel that Alshon has the best hands in the draft," Emery said. "We feel that he is the best at adjusting to the ball. We felt he was the best sideline and end zone catcher in the draft. He's dynamic with the ball in his hands. He's a big man. He's strong. He's tough. He doesn't go down without a fight.
"I think (adding Jeffery) is going to provide some mismatch opportunities for us that we're going to be hard to handle in terms of size and physicalness and ball skills with the wideouts that we have."
Jeffery, who played last season at around 230 pounds, told the Chicago media that he feels his ideal playing weight is between 215 and 220 pounds.
While Gilmore, Ingram and Jeffery were expected to be the top three Gamecocks selected, former spur linebacker Antonio Allen was forecasted by most analysts to be the fourth USC player to hear his name called.
Instead, the honor went to offensive lineman Rokevious Watkins, who was drafted in the fifth round by the St. Louis Rams. The Rams suffered from a glaring lack of depth along the offensive front last season in their quest to protect promising young QB Sam Bradford.
Rams coaches and executives feel the 6-fot-4, 330-pound Watkins gives them the size and skills a team needs in an NFL offensive lineman and concur he could develop into a potential starter at left guard.
"He is a large man. With us, having a left guard opening and the versatility, we decided to go with Watkins," Rams GM Les Snead said.
New St. Louis head coach Jeff Fisher prefers bigger bodied O-Lineman with a mean streak, and Watkins should fit the bill on both counts.
"Rok is a big man that has overcome a lot of stuff," Fisher said. "He's a great story. But he is a very productive player. He's a finisher. He goes down field and finishes blocks. He's versatile. He can play guard or tackle."
Showing his versatility, Watkins started all 13 games at three different positions along the offensive line in 2011 - the first five games at right tackle, the next seven at left tackle and the bowl game at right guard as the replacement for the injured Terrence Campbell.
"I like to do it all, but I take pride in the physicality," Watkins said in a conference call with St. Louis reporters. "There's nothing better than grabbing a defensive lineman and slamming him on his neck. I enjoy it, and it's legal."
Although Jeffery fell slightly in the draft, his slip was nothing compared to spur/strong safety Antonio Allen, who entered the draft with a third or fourth round grade, but had to wait until late in the seventh round on Saturday before being selected.
The Jets realize they got great value in picking Allen as late as they did (No. 242 overall).
"We were pleasantly surprised we could get Allen where we did," Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum, said. "He was very productive at South Carolina. He was their leading tackler. He is very versatile."
The draft closed out from USC's perspective when defensive tackle Travian Robertson was taken by the Atlanta Falcons with the No. 249 pick overall.
Hours after the NFL Draft concluded, cornerback and special teams star Marty Markett signed a free agent contract with Atlanta, while CB C.C. Whitlock signed with Minnesota.
Offensive lineman Terrence Campbell signed a free agent contract with the Washington Redskins on Sunday.
NFL DRAFT TOTALS FOR EACH SEC SCHOOL: Alabama (8), Georgia (7), South Carolina (6), LSU (5), Arkansas (4), Miss. State (3), Florida (2), Kentucky (2), Vanderbilt (2), Auburn (1), Ole Miss (1), Tennessee (1).
USC PLAYERS SELECTED IN 2012 NFL DRAFT:
1. Stephon Gilmore - Buffalo (1st Rd, No. 10);
2. Melvin Ingram - San Diego (1st Rd, No. 18);
3. Alshon Jeffery - Chicago (2nd Rd, No. 45);
4. Rokevious Watkins - St. Louis (5th Rd, No. 150);
5. Antonio Allen - NY Jets (7th Rd, No. 242);
6. Travian Robertson - Atlanta (7th Rd, No. 249).
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