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August 16, 2013

Top 15 football players since 1998

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To celebrate GamecockCentral.com's 15th anniversary, we're putting together some fun lists of "Top 15" things -- players, coaches, events, etc -- that Gamecock Central was there to either help cover, celebrate or just plain commiserate.

Today's installment is the top 15 Gamecock football players since 1998:

1. Marcus Lattimore (2010-12): Lattimore doesn't have the most rushing yards in school history, and nationally is best known now for a pair of severe knee injuries in 2011 and 2012 that cost him the equivalent of one full season. However, no single player transformed the program more than Lattimore, a consummate team leader with a legendary work ethic and never-say-die attitude that filtered down to his teammates. Yes, Lattimore was a phenomenal running back on the field with 2,677 career rushing yards on 555 carries in 29 games, placing him sixth on USC's all-time list, but Steve Spurrier described him as the greatest player in school history largely because of his off-the-charts leadership skills. Three decades of coaching have taught Spurrier a valuable lesson - when your best player in your hardest worker, that's a very good combination. In other words, it's not a coincidence USC was 31-9 in Lattimore's three years with the program even though he didn't play in 11 of those contests. When he was lost due to the knee injuries, his teammates persevered with his teachings on what being a major college player is all about. A decade from now, when we're celebrating 25 years of Gamecock Central, Lattimore's signing will be remembered affectionately as the preeminent happening that led to the glory days of USC football. Now he's taken his skills to the NFL's San Francisco 49ers. Only a fool would bet against Lattimore.

2. Alshon Jeffery (2009-11): The only Gamecock receiver with greater than 3,000 career receiving yards, Jeffery overwhelmed opposing defensive backs with his sheer size, strength, physicality, leaping ability and Velcro hands. His career accomplishments (183 catches, 23 touchdowns) essentially came in 2-1/2 seasons because he didn't start playing regularly until midway through his freshman campaign in 2009 when he debuted against Kentucky with three touchdown catches. Fittingly, his last career catch and touchdown in a Gamecock uniform came on a 50-yard Hail Mary pass in the final seconds before halftime of the Capital One Bowl against Nebraska on New Year's Day in 2012 when he rose above several Cornhusker defenders to snag the ball out of the air and dive into the end zone. His average yards per catch (16.6) is second only to Troy Williamson (19.3) over the past 15 years.

3. Eric Norwood (2006-09): No Gamecock defensive player has accumulated greater defensive numbers than Norwood, who is still the school's all-time leader in sacks (29) and tackles for loss (54.5). He was a relentless pass rusher from first the defensive end spot and later outside linebacker. His performance in the thunderous Thursday night win over then No. 4 Ole Miss in 2009 was unforgettable as he collected 10 tackles, two sacks and a blocked kick in terrorizing the Rebels all night, staking his claim to being one of the top defensive players in the country. Earlier, he scored two touchdowns on fumble returns against Kentucky in 2008. He was drafted in the fourth round by the Carolina Panthers in 2010 and now plays in the CFL.

4. Kenny McKinley (2005-08): His suicide on Sept. 20, 2010, stunned Gamecock Nation because he seemed to possess an outgoing and cheerful personality. He remains USC's all-time leading receiver in terms of receptions with 207, putting him third in SEC history. In fact, he is one of just five SEC receivers with 200 or more career catches. He is second in receiving yards with 2,781 and tied for third in touchdown catches (19). Only Jeffery and Sidney Rice have more TD catches than McKinley, who was a fifth-round selection of the Denver Broncos in 2010. Spurrier's words resonate today: "If life was fair, Kenny McKinley would be a first-round draft pick." McKinley's size kept him from being drafted higher, but he will be fondly remembered as one of the most popular Gamecock athletes ever.

5. Sheldon Brown (1998-01): USC has been labeled "Defensive Backs U" because of the numerous standout secondary stars the school has produced, and none have been better in the past 15 years than Brown, who went on to enjoy a distinguished 11-year NFL career (26 interceptions) with the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns. Brown is second all-time in passes broken up with 36 and his heroics on a fourth-down interception against Clemson in 2001 helped USC win in his final home game at Williams-Brice Stadium. Brown tied for the team lead in interceptions in 2000 (4) and 2001 (3), and was a first-team All-SEC selection in 2001 by the coaches and multiple media outlets.

6. Jadeveon Clowney (2011-Present): Had this list been compiled a year from now, Clowney would certainly be in the top two. Pound-for-pound, he's unquestionably the most physically gifted player of the past 15 years, if not school history. After just two seasons, he ranks fifth in school history with 21 sacks and tied for second in tackles for loss (35.5). Both marks are within his reach. But his report card is incomplete with only his junior season remaining before he walks across the stage at Radio City Music Hall in New York City as the likely top pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Clowney won the Hendricks Award as the top defensive end in the country and finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy balloting last December, but the "The Hit" in the Outback Bowl changed everything, igniting heated debate about Clowney's chances of becoming the first pure defensive player to win the most coveted individual award in college football.

7. Sidney Rice (2005-06): Even though Rice bolted for the NFL after two seasons, he posted extraordinary numbers and is still tied with Jeffery atop the list for most touchdown catches in USC history with 23. He had 11 100-yard receiving yards, about half the games he appeared in. Jeffery had 12 in three seasons. Had Rice elected to return for one more season in 2007, he would probably own most of the major school receiving records - receptions, receiving yards, touchdown receptions, 100-yard receiving games - by a comfortable margin and would certainly be higher on this list. He is probably the only Gamecock receiver able to match the exploits of Jeffery. He averaged 71 receptions and 1,117 yards in his two seasons, while Jeffery averaged 61 receptions and 927 yards per season. His five touchdown catches against overmatched Florida Atlantic in 2006 is still the single-game school record.

8. John Abraham (1996-99): He was Clowney before there was Clowney. Abraham was one of the few bright spots on poor Gamecock teams in 1998-99, which minimized the amount of attention be received. But NFL scouts drooled over him, which is why he is one six Gamecocks players taken in the first round of the NFL Draft since 1998. He collected 23.5 career sacks, putting him third on USC's all-time list, although Clowney should pass him soon. Abraham is the lone defender in school history to lead the Gamecocks in sacks in four straight seasons. His story is familiar to long-time Gamecocks fans. Born in Timmonsville, he primarily ran track at Lamar High School and played just one season of high school football. However, his physical skills impressed USC coaches to such an extent that he signed to a letter of intent by the Gamecocks in 1996. Seventeen years later, Abraham is still active in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals following successful stints with the New York Jets (2000-05) and Atlanta Falcons (2006-12).

9. Travelle Wharton (2000-03): Perhaps the most decorated offensive lineman of the past 15 years, Wharton started 45 of the 47 games he played at left tackle for USC and didn't allow a sack after the second game of his freshman season in 2000, a span of 45 contests. In 2003, Wharton earned second-team All-SEC recognition and played in the Senior Bowl. He was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the third round of the 2004 NFL Draft, making him one of only three Gamecock offensive linemen (Corey Louchley in 1994 and Ernest Dye in 1993 are the others) selected in the first three rounds since the school joined the SEC in 1992.

10. D.J. Swearinger (2009-12): Few Gamecock players over the past 15 years have strutted with more swagger than Swearinger, who almost always backed up his words and sometimes controversial conduct (see Clemson game last season) with exceptional play on the field. His nose for the football was second-to-none and he loved contact. He finished his career with 244 tackles, including 79 in 2012, and is tied for sixth in school history with 52 appearances. Swearinger was the undisputed team leader of the Gamecock defense last season, and replacing his leadership skills is one of USC's toughest tasks in 2013.

11. Stephon Gilmore (2009-11): His decision to verbally commit to USC in October 2008 is viewed as the definitive moment that jumpstarted Spurrier's tenure as head coach. Soon, other great players like Lattimore and Clowney followed. How good was Gilmore? He graduated from South Pointe in December 2008 to enroll at South Carolina early and participate in spring practice. Within a week, he had seized the starting cornerback job and the rest is history. He started every game in his career and is one of 10 former Gamecocks with 40 or more career starts on their resume. He was the undisputed leader of the secondary (led USC in interceptions in 2010-11) and one of the most respected cornerbacks in the SEC. His steady play and uncompromising personality caught the eye of NFL scouts and Buffalo pegged him as the No. 10 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.

12. Phil Petty (1998-01): The unsung hero of the back-to-back Outback Bowl teams (2000-01) that beat Ohio State twice. Petty's career completion percentage stands at just 52.7 percent, but he had few quality receivers to throw to in his first two years. Eventually, he threw for 5,652 yards and 28 touchdowns, with his finest season coming in 2000 when he totaled 2,285 passing yards in directing the historic turnaround season. Petty wasn't the most physically gifted quarterback in Gamecock history, but he was a winner.

13. Ryan Brewer (1999-2002): The guy from Troy, Ohio, is still celebrated for perhaps the most memorable bowl game performance in Gamecock history when he scored three touchdowns, rushed for 109 yards and caught three passes in just the second bowl win in USC history. He led USC in receiving in 2002, but he also served as the primary kickoff and punt returner in his four years, and remains the only player in school history to lead the Gamecocks four straight years in punt returns. His kickoff return average of 25.0 yards in 1999 is the second-highest since 1997.

14. Ryan Succop (2005-08): Next to Collin Mackie, Succop is the greatest kicker in Gamecock history with 49 field goals and a 71 percent success rate. Two of the four longest field goals in school annals belong to Succop, who signed a multi-million dollar contract with the Kansas City Chiefs last year. He boomed a 55-yarder through the uprights at Vanderbilt in 2006 and made a 54-yarder against Arkansas in 2008.

15. Stephen Garcia (2008-11): Yeah, he was occasionally a knucklehead off the field, and Steve Spurrier frequently questioned his commitment about playing quarterback in the SEC, but there is no question he produced on the field when it counted. In four seasons, he threw for 7,597 yards and 47 touchdowns and led the Gamecocks to some huge wins, as well as the school's only SEC Eastern Division title in 21 years of conference membership.

HONORABLE MENTION (Alphabetical Order): Antonio Allen, Ladi Ajiboye, Fred Bennett, Cory Boyd, Jasper Brinkley, Emanuel Cook, Jared Cook, Chris Culliver, Justice Cunningham, Zola Davis, Patrick DiMarco, Kalimba Edwards, Rashad Faison, Arturo Freeman, George Gause, Kenny Harney, DeVonte Holloman, Melvin Ingram, T.J. Johnson, Jermale Kelly, Cliff Matthews, Langston Moore, Blake Mitchell, Captain Munnerlyn, Rodney Paulk, Andrew Pinnock, Travian Robertson, Dunta Robinson, Ace Sanders, Connor Shaw, Ko Simpson, Brian Scott, Devin Taylor, Matthew Thomas, Derek Watson, Cedric Williams, Shaq Wilson.

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