Spurrier Searching for Seniors
This article appears in the upcoming issue of Gamecocks Illustrated magazine, Gamecock Central's sister publication. Andrew Skwara is a freelance sportswriter and former national writer for Yahoo! Sports. Charles Bennett contributed to this article.
Want to know why most college football analysts are saying that South Carolina has virtually no chance of winning the SEC East this year and may even struggle to get back to a bowl game?
Look at the roster.
The Gamecocks return only seven scholarship seniors this season, the fewest in the conference. Seven SEC teams have more than twice as many seniors as the Gamecocks. Ole Miss, who Carolina plays Sept. 24, has more than three times that many, with a league-high 24. In-state rival Clemson has 15.
National analyst Phil Steele ranks South Carolina as one of the least experienced teams in the nation – No. 104 in offensive yards returning and No. 102 in percentage of tackles returning, out of 120 Division I-A programs. According to Steele, most teams return 70 to 80 percent of their tackles.
What's the reason for this? One word: attrition. Nearly half of Steve Spurrier's first four recruiting classes are gone.
From 2005 to 2008, Spurrier and his staff signed 103 players. Today, only 55 remain on the roster.
That 53.4 percent is the next to worst retention rate in the SEC, better only than Mississippi State, which tends to sign an extraordinary number of junior college transfers.
By comparison, Georgia still has 71.6 percent of the players it signed from 2005-08, Florida has retained 69.1 percent, and Tennessee still has 60.4 percent.
Clemson has retained 73.6 percent of its signees over the same period.
Retired coach Clyde Wrenn, who served as Clemson's recruiting coordinator in the 1980s and South Carolina's in the 1990s, said he can't ever remember hearing of a gap that big.
"There's something wrong right there," Wrenn said. "Having only seven seniors should never happen."
Spurrier acknowledges the damage done by the leakage of players out of his program.
He told Gamecocks Illustrated, "We only have seven seniors this year and I attribute it to making mistakes in recruiting."
Spurrier said, "Actually, our recruiting ranking was decent all those years, 24, 25 and sometimes even better, but in actuality those players were not what we thought they were going to be. It just didn't work out for some reason."
Out of Spurrier's initial group of 28 signees in 2005, which ideally should have produced a number of coveted fifth-year seniors for the upcoming season, only four players remain active: offensive linemen Lemuel Jeanpierre and Jarriel King, defensive lineman Nathan Pepper and linebacker Gerrod Sinclair.
Spurrier's 2006 recruiting class, the first he had a full year to prepare for, hasn't fared well, either. Only 12 of the 24 signees remain.
Nevertheless, Spurrier says the program is headed in the right direction. The numbers appear to support him.
South Carolina's 2007 and 2008 recruiting classes – built during Years 2 and 3 of Spurrier's tenure – are well on their way to producing a large crop of seniors.
Out of 51 players signed in those two years, 39 are still on the roster. That's 76.5 percent, fifth out of the 12 SEC football programs but still behind Florida (87.8 percent) and Georgia (83 percent.)
It has been a mystery to Gamecock fans as to why Spurrier, who terrorized the rest of the SEC during his 12 years as head coach at Florida, is still struggling at South Carolina.
National football experts blame it largely on USC's recent succession of underperforming quarterbacks.
"It's really all about the quarterback," said Matt Hayes, college football writer for The Sporting News. "If you can find one that doesn't make mistakes and can win a lot of games, that can make up for a lack of seniors. With South Carolina, that's where it rests right now."
Another analyst, who asked not to be identified because his employer doesn't want him quoted outside his job, said Spurrier's inability so far to find a quarterback with whom he is comfortable has affected recruiting as a whole.
"Other teams use that against you in the recruiting process when it comes to finding quarterbacks or skill players, and he's had a lot of quarterbacks leave the program," the analyst said. "It's really affected the entire atmosphere of the program at times, because there has been so much attention on who will play under center and the offense's problems."
During the Spurrier era, three quarterbacks have transferred to other programs, including a pair of former starters, Tommy Beecher and Chris Smelley.
South Carolina enters the 2009 season with only one experienced signal caller on its roster: redshirt sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia, who has gotten more attention for his problems off the field than for his performance on it.
Garcia performed well in the Garnet and Black spring game, however, and Spurrier has said that he appears to be making good progress under the tutelage of new quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus.
MORE TO RECRUITING THAN RANKINGS
As to why so many players from Spurrier's first two recruiting classes dropped out of the program, Hayes said that when a new coach comes in, "You really don't know the kids, whereas much of your competition has been recruiting those same prospects since they were sophomores."
Wrenn, who worked as an NFL scout between his college coaching stints, said coaches pay too much attention to the recruiting service rankings that get fans so excited.
"Those recruiting services don't make a living on what happens to those kids – you do," he said. "What matters is where that kid is ranked three or four years after he signed."
Wrenn said, "You have to know absolutely everything you can about each prospect in recruiting. You have to know who they trust the most, and how motivated they are. We are talking about 17- and 18-year old kids who have had their heads built up by everyone around them, and they are going to need some guidance. Who will they turn to when they need help? What do they need help with? You have to know the answers."
He said, "It usually takes two to three years for a coach to fully settle in and learn his surroundings."
Spurrier and his staff, which has undergone a number of changes, may be a prime example of that timeline.
Nearly half the 2005 signing class failed to complete their eligibility. Tight end Jared Cook declared for the NFL draft and was taken in the third round. But most of the others either transferred or quit, often because of a lack of playing time. Three were asked not to return for their senior year, including Beecher, who was named the starting quarterback in preseason a year ago.
In 2006, South Carolina signed a class that looked good on paper, with six recruits ranked 4-star by Rivals.com. Only two of those – center Garrett Anderson and offensive tackle Hutch Eckerson – are likely to play much this season. Offensive guard Kevin Young has been hobbled by injuries, defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis and Smelley transferred, and offensive lineman Clarence Bailey failed to qualify academically.
Two other departed members of the 2006 signing class made puzzling choices in leaving early for the NFL draft. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn wasn't taken until the seventh round; safety Emanuel Cook went undrafted.
Losing that many potential seniors from a recruiting class can only hurt a football program, said former Ole Miss and Tennessee assistant Matt Luke, who is now the offensive coordinator at Duke.
"There's no 100 percent guarantee that you can't win without seniors, but I don't think you can overrate the value of seniors, especially fifth-year seniors," Luke said. "That one extra year makes so much of a difference, from getting more time in the weight room to the overall experience to building leadership. It really increases your team's chances of being successful."
Some players leave because they aren't happy with the environment, while others fail to develop as the coaches had hoped, he said. "You do all you can do when you are evaluating players but there are so many factors. It's still very much an inexact science. The NFL puts in more time and money than us when scouting for the draft and they still miss on a lot of guys."
The good news is that the bleeding appears to have slowed down significantly.
Senior linebacker Eric Norwood, who has already set a school record for tackles for loss, said following the 2008 season that he planned to declare for the NFL draft, but later changed his mind. It's likely that his decision to stay was influenced by assistant head coach for defense Ellis Johnson, who was hired prior to the 2008 season.
"Part of your recruiting job is getting those top guys to try and stay," said Wrenn. "Your best juniors are always going to be able to help the team more than your best freshmen."
Spurrier and his staff followed up by doing their best in-state recruiting job yet with the 2009 signing class, landing three of the top four in-state prospects, many of whom had gone out of state in the past.
If more players follow Norwood's example and Spurrier and his staff continue to make the right moves in the recruiting game, seniors will soon go from a scarcity to abundance at USC.
"I think what is encouraging," Spurrier said, "is that we have a new group of coaches, six of 10, a new strength coach, and the attitude amongst our team is much improved and hopefully that will lead to more than seven wins."
2005 RECRUITING CLASS
Yvan Banag, DB
Mike Davis, RB
Brandon Isaac, DB
Kenny McKinley, ATH
Marvin Sapp, LB
Ryan Succop, K
Carlos Thomas, ATH
Mike West, DB
Bobby Wallace, RB
Tommy Beecher, QB (graduated)
Kerry Bonds, DE (dismissed)
Freddie Brown, WR (graduated)
Jared Cook, WR (NFL Draft)
Brent Davis, LB (quit)
Jonathan Hannah, TE (transfer)
Shea McKeen, TE (transfer)
O.J. Murdock, WR (quit)
Taylor Rank, DB (graduated)
Cade Thompson, QB (transfer)
Dakota Walker, DE (transfer)
Jeremy Ware, DB (transfer)
Damien Wright, DB (transfer)
Brandyn Young, ATH (transfer)
Mychal Belcher, ATH (academics)
2006 RECRUITING CLASS
Casper Brinkley, LB
Jasper Brinkley, LB
Joel Reeves, DT
Emanuel Cook, DB (NFL Draft)
Kenrick Ellis, DT (transfer)
Clark Gaston, RB (quit)
Chris Hail, WR (dismissed)
Captain Munnerlyn, DB (NFL Draft)
Nick Prochak, ATH (medical hardship)
Vandaral Shackleford, LB (transfer)
Chris Smelley, QB (transfer)
Clarence Bailey, OL
2007 RECRUITING CLASS
Larry Freeman, WR
Jonathan Williams, DT
Mark Barnes, ATH (transfer)
Donte'e Nichols, DT (dismissed)
Sam Pope, DB (transfer)
Jamire Williams, DB (quit)
Mat Williams, TE (quit)
Michael Bowman, WR
Arkee Smith, DB
2008 RECRUITING CLASS
Ryan Doerr, K (quit)
Did Not Enroll
Darrell Simmons, DB
Elliott Williams, OL