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August 23, 2013

Top 15 recruits

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 an analysis of the top 15 highest-rated prospects since GamecockCentral.com came online in 1998. Just as a note, the only JUCO prospects included are those of the five-star variety since JUCO/prep/high school prospects are not rated in the same category by Rivals.com. We will also be using Rivals.com's rankings at the time the prospect signed, not our own and not a retroactive ranking. This list does not consider on-field impact, just initial ranking before enrollment. Rivals.com began assigning star rankings to players in 2002, so that is where we will begin.

Jadeveon Clowney

It goes without saying that once in a generation talents only come around, well, you know. It happened during the 2011 recruiting cycle with Jadeveon Clowney and like every other college program in the country, South Carolina set out to try to land him. Fortunately for the coaching staff that big time prospect was right down I-77 at South Pointe High in Rock Hill. He was ranked as the number one prospect in the country by Rivals.com and had a highlight tape that could make you laugh, wince, or blush in embarrassment for the opponent.

It was a recruiting battle that raged on from the time Clowney was a high school sophomore until past national signing day when the five-star prospect announced for the Gamecocks on his birthday, February 14.

There was substantial hype around Clowney and enormous expectations, with veteran recruiting analyst Mike Farrell of Rivals.com calling him the best prospect he had ever scouted in high school and NFL GMs calling him the best prospect on defense in the last decade. So far, Clowney has managed to live up to the billing with 21 sacks, 35.5 tackles for loss, and eight forced fumbles in just two seasons along with numerous game-changing plays (ever heard of 'The Hit'?). He's a Heisman Trophy candidate after finishing sixth last season and the very likely number one pick in next April's NFL Draft.

Marcus Lattimore

Stepping back a year from the recruitment of Clowney, South Carolina had another elite prospect (this time in the Upstate) that was viewed as a must-get in Byrnes' Marcus Lattimore. The five-star back, rated by Rivals.com as the best in the country, had every trait one looked for in a franchise runner out of high school. He was wanted everywhere and South Carolina beat Auburn and Penn State to land the prospect that would have an effect on Gamecock football that will never be forgotten.

Lattimore exploded onto the college football scene with a huge freshman season in which he rushed for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns. He broke multiple records and even more tackles against Georgia. He was National Freshman of the Year and first-team All-SEC. He carried the ball 40 times in The Swamp and led USC to its first ever SEC championship.

As a sophomore, Lattimore was a Heisman Trophy contender on his way to another stellar season when he suffered an ACL at Mississippi State. It seemed like a nightmare when Lattimore went down with another serious knee injury last season, but he got up again and predictably worked hard to return to form. Lattimore was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth round and will sit out the coming season to continue recovery. He's arguably the most beloved athlete in South Carolina history, and another that not only met but exceeded expectations.

Ricardo Hurley

Coming out of Greenwood (S.C.), Ricardo Hurley looked like a defensive coach's dream at linebacker. A 6-foot-3, 235-pounder with 4.5 speed, he drew scholarship offers from top programs around the Southeast and heavily considered Florida and Georgia before inking with the Gamecocks as part of the class of 2002.

Hurley was rated by Rivals.com as a five-star prospect and the country's best inside linebacker prospect. As a freshman at South Carolina, the Upstate product played in ten games (one start) and tallied 20 tackles. Hurley was bothered by injuries including an ankle ailment during his sophomore season that cut his season to nine total games with two starts. His junior campaign was solid, one in which he started all 11 games and was the team's fifth-leading tackler. Despite playing in just eight games in 2005, his final season, he posted his best statistical year. Hurley accumulated 57 tackles, eight tackles for loss, a pair of sacks, two forced fumbles and recovered a fumble as a senior. Even then, the year was somewhat of a disappointment based on expectations. Hurley had been named the Most Improved Linebacker during spring ball and was healthy. Hurley lost his starting job to Dustin Lindsey after six games, later returning to start against Clemson and Missouri. Overall, Hurley's career was solid but certainly not spectacular given his billing out of high school.

Demetris Summers

Years before Marcus Lattimore would hit the scene, the Palmetto State featured another top-flight running back that was firmly on the national radar in Lexington's Demetris Summers.

The five-star-rated talent checked in as the 21st-best prospect overall in the country according to Rivals.com and as the nation's third-best running back behind someone named Reggie Bush and future Georgia Bulldog Kregg Lumpkin. An in-state recruiting battle between Clemson and South Carolina resulted in a Gamecock victory and the stage was set for Summers to take his considerable talents to Columbia.

Summers made a sizable impact as a freshman, earning All-SEC Freshman Team honors from the league's coaches after posting 638 yards on 124 carries with three touchdowns. That freshman campaign also included a 27 carry, 158 yard performance against Tennessee that opened eyes. Summers' sophomore year came around with much anticipation, but not as much production. He played in eight games as he dealt with injury and tallied 487 yards on 88 carries with one rushing touchdown.

Steve Spurrier arrived in Columbia before the 2005 season and many thought Summers would flourish in the new offense, building upon his sparkling 5.3 yards per carry career average. However, Summers was dismissed from the team in the spring and did not play another down at South Carolina. He trained for the NFL Draft the following year and had a short stint with the Dallas Cowboys after going undrafted. He finished his football career with the CFL's Calgary Stampeders, playing for the team from 2008-2010.

Chris Culliver

When North Carolina five-star Chris Culliver signed with South Carolina in the 2007 class, many thought he would be the next great receiver at South Carolina. He was ranked as the third-best receiver prospect in the country and checked in at number 19 on the 2007 Rivals100. As it turned out, he never caught a ball at receiver in Columbia. He did play on offense as a true freshman, rushing the ball five times for 31 yards and also earning some postseason honors for his kick return abilities.

The following season, Culliver moved to free safety where he started 12 games and tallied three interceptions to go along with 60 tackles. Culliver started 12 games his junior season and had 64 tackles while becoming the school's all-time kick return yardage leader. During his senior year, Culliver made the shift to cornerback but played just eight games; he was suspended at the beginning of the year and after returning for several games succumbed to a pectoral muscle tear that ended his college career. Culliver's career had some ups and downs, and a lot of it had to do with injuries. A 2009 routine shoulder surgery nearly proved fatal. Culliver's size, speed, and talent earned him a third-round selection by the San Francisco 49ers.

Darel Slay

The 6-foot-3, 245-pounder out of Holmes Community College in Mississippi was a five-star prospect and one of the top non-high school prospects in the country in the 2002 class. After committing to USC, he took a visit to West Virginia but inked with the Gamecocks.

Slay's Gamecock career ended up being underwhelming however, as he started just two games during his final season in 2003. His career stat line: 46 tackles, six tackles for loss, three quarterback hurries, a sack, and a fumble recovery.

Randy Jackson

It was 2001, and Georgia Military's Randy Jackson was the best junior college player in the country, having just captured the NJCAA defensive player of the year award. Gamecock fans were no doubt thrilled to land a 6-foot-4, 277-pound defensive tackle that would be able to contribute right away. Oh yes, and he also flipped to USC late after being committed to Clemson to put the icing on the cake.

Jackson showed flashes early, but the stud defender it looked like he would be in college never materialized. He played in ten games his first (junior) season before suffering an ankle injury that required season-ending surgery. The Lancaster native finished his career with 20 tackles and a quarterback hurry as a reserve lineman (stats according to GamecockArchives.com).

Cliff Matthews

Cheraw's Cliff Matthews was a signature pickup for South Carolina's staff when he committed in the 2007 class. Ranked as the third-best weakside defensive end in the country and checking in at number 32 overall in that cycle's Rivals100, the talented defender could have played tight end, defensive end, or even basketball (mid-major level) in college.

Matthews' impact on the USC defense was immediate, as he stepped in and played in 12 games with nine starts as a true freshman on his way to Freshman All-SEC honors. He moved to his natural position of defensive end the next season and tallied 32 tackles and a trio of sacks. He was named a captain prior to his junior season and responded with 47 tackles, ten tackles for loss, and seven sacks. The Palmetto State product again earned second team All-SEC honors his senior season; although he battled a shoulder injury part of the year he had 38 tackles and 4.5 sacks.

Matthews will be remembered as a great ambassador for USC and a favorite of those that are close to the program because of his character, hustle, and work ethic. He earned a seventh round selection by the Atlanta Falcons in the 2011 NFL Draft.

Victor Hampton

It looked for a while like Victor Hampton would be playing against - not for - South Carolina. The Charlotte (N.C.) Independence star was an early commitment to Florida. After making the move to Darlington for his high school senior season, Hampton and the Gator staff parted ways and South Carolina stepped into the game.

Hampton, rated as the nation's sixth-best cornerback and number 60 on the 2010 Rivals100, never had his talent questioned but got off to a rocky start before even enrolling. Hampton was arrested for underage drinking at school, and upon arriving at USC redshirted. He actually spent time as a receiver on the scout team and had to earn trust as a player. In 2011 he played in ten games as a cornerback, registering an interception and also getting some time as a kick returner. He started every game at cornerback last season save for the Florida game in which USC opened in a "goal line" package. Hampton had 40 tackles, an interception to seal the win against Tennessee and six pass breakups in addition to his first career sack. For the second straight year, he captured the "Everyday Attitude" award in the spring and returns as USC's top cover corner and punt returner this season.

Mike Davis

Another highly-rated prospect that was formerly committed to Florida follows on this list. Stone Mountain (Ga.) Stephenson's Mike Davis. The Rivals100 four-star performer pledged to the Gators in February of 2011 but by December, was back on the market albeit for a very short time as Lorenzo Ward quickly moved in with a commitment.

As a freshman, Davis saw the field and averaged 5.3 yards per carry with a pair of scores and 275 total yards. He is slated to be USC's starting running back this season and has a chance to be an excellent player in Columbia.

Shaq Roland

Lexington's Shaq Roland was South Carolina's 2012 Mr. Football and a bigtime playmaker at receiver that some fans pegged as an instant impact player.

Roland's freshman season was not a big one in terms of production and he admittedly had to learn more in terms of offseason work ethic, the playbook, and the like but he has showed flashes in practice and game situations of the talent that had him ranked out of high school as the tenth-best receiver in the country and the 66th-best prospect overall. As a true freshman, the Midlands product caught five balls for 80 yards and a touchdown and should see his opportunities increase this season.

Brandon Shell

Goose Creek head coach Chuck Reedy, who has experience as a college assistant and head coach, said numerous times during the recruitment of offensive lineman Brandon Shell that he had first-round talent. The size (6-foot-6, 325 pounds) and bloodlines (uncle Art Shell) are there for that to happen but Shell is still a young player.

The former high school All-American, who Nick Saban continued to pursue after his commitment to USC, played a handful of plays as a true freshman but redshirted and had a shoulder injury for much of the year that dated back to high school. Shell recovered strength heading into his second year and ended up starting nine games, eventually shifting to his more natural position of right tackle.

The Lowcountry product has eye-opening athleticism for his size with a 36.5 inch vertical jump and had a strong offseason workout program. He is widely expected to take a big step forward on the field this season for Shawn Elliott.

Stephon Gilmore

The multi-talented Stephon Gilmore led his team to a state championship as a senior at South Pointe (S.C.) playing quarterback. Rated by Rivals.com as the nation's sixth-best athlete prospect and number 84 overall in the 2009 Rivals100, Gilmore was wanted by top programs around the Southeast to play defensive back. He made official visits to Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee. He chose the Gamecocks and enrolled early at the school.

It did not take long for Gilmore to make his presence felt, as he quickly proved to be one of the hardest workers on the team even as a true freshman. Gilmore had a big freshman year, with 56 tackles, six tackles for loss, three sacks, an interception, and eight pass breakups on his way to freshman All-SEC honors. He was one of six players to be named First-Team All-SEC and make the Academic Honor Roll in the conference as well his sophomore year, one in which he led the squad with 79 tackles, three sacks, and three interceptions. His junior season was also a success, as he tallied 46 tackles and three interceptions to go along with seven pass breakups. He started all forty games at USC. Gilmore was a steady and reliable performer at USC, starting all 40 games during his three-year career. Despite speed being his biggest question mark to project as a defensive back in college, he ripped off a 4.4 forty at the NFL Combine and went on to be the tenth overall pick in the 2011 draft by the Buffalo Bills.

Carlos Thomas

Another highly-rated receiver turned defensive back made this list in College Park (Ga.) Banneker's Carlos Thomas. The former Rivals100 standout, listed by Rivals.com as the ninth-best receiver prospect in the 2005 class, made an early commitment to Georgia Tech but flipped to South Carolina after Steve Spurrier's hiring.

Thomas played wide receiver, cornerback, and special teams as a true freshman. He intercepted a pass against Georgia on defense and caught nine balls for 73 yards on offense. He transitioned to cornerback for his sophomore campaign and had 27 tackles with two interceptions while contributing as a kick returner. During his junior year Thomas played in 11 games (just seven starts) and had 17 tackles and six pass break-ups.

Damario Jeffery

After an extremely short-lived commitment to Clemson, South Carolina rebounded and fought off Alabama to land Columbia product Damario Jeffery who was a member of the Rivals100 and rated by the network as the seventh-best prospect at athlete in the 2009 class.

Jeffery saw the field as a true freshman, working his way into a backup role at spur and collecting 15 tackles. The local product played in every game as a sophomore, starting three. He played spur and special teams as a junior in 2011 and made 14 tackles while also playing a role on special teams. During Jeffery's senior season, he moved over to a more natural position of WILL linebacker and was a key backup. He tallied 24 tackles and 3.5 for a loss. Although Jeffery was a solid contributor at USC, one must wonder if he moved to linebacker to earlier, was healthier at times, and perhaps took a redshirt year if he would have turned out to have been even more productive at USC.

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