South Carolina had a banner recruiting year in the state of Georgia, signing a total of 12 prospects from the Peach State. Many of them were pursued by other SEC schools, including the home state Bulldogs.
But defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward sees an ancillary benefit to signing a dozen players from arguably the most fertile state in the entire Southeast as far as producing SEC players is concerned.
Because most high schools in Georgia hold their graduations in May, most or all of those 12 signees should be able to enroll at USC by late May in time for the first semester of summer school.
According to USC's web site, classes for the Summer I session begin May 28.
"Most of them graduate around the last week of May, so we should be able to get them into the first session of summer school," Ward said late Wednesday afternoon on 107.5 FM The Game. "If they do that, they can be here for two months. They'll have a chance to work out with the team and try to gain the knowledge on and off the field with the players that are already here teaching them what we do with the system."
Ward personally recruited most of the Peach State players that signed letters of intent with USC on Wednesday. He relied on a spider web-like network of contacts build over two decades of recruiting in Georgia to help the Gamecocks land such a large number of elite prospects.
How impressive was USC's 2012 showing in Georgia? The Gamecocks actually signed more players from the Peach State than UGA (11) did, a preposterous thought only a few years ago.
"It's about building relationships," Ward said on 107.5 FM. "I've always had a good relationship with coaches in the state of Georgia. Coach (G.A.) Mangus (who grew up in Atlanta) has good relationships with coaches in the state of Georgia as well. Coaches want to send their players to guys they are familiar with and to whom they've sent players before and they've been treated the way they ought to be.
"They have a lot of confidence in our guys and the school. And we've done well in the Eastern Division the last couple of years. Guys want to go play for winners. Georgia is a good football school, but for some reasons a lot of guys are leaving the state. We wanted to put ourselves into position to get our share of those guys."
USC's 2012 class was a bit different from previous years in one important regard - 19 of the 25 signees committed to the Gamecocks before the start of pre-season camp last August.
Thus, the past six months have been less about attracting new talent than keeping the verbally committed players in the fold. USC had a 100 percent success rate in that area.
"It's been a good recruiting season," Ward said in a possible understatement. "But not just for me, but for a lot of other guys on the staff as well and the program we have here at South Carolina. Recruiting has changed from when I played the game. A lot of guys are coming much earlier.
"The Internet has helped that. Parents are now taking their kids to schools in the summertime. We feel that once we get a kid on campus we have a chance to get them because our schools sells itself. Our program is getting up there to the point where people enjoy watching us play football."
The fact USC already had 25 commitments secured when the sun rose on National Signing Day meant the coaches could enjoy a peaceful day. Of course, there were a few snags here and there, but every player expected to sign with USC did.
Ward, for one, insisted he enjoyed the lack of signing day drama.
"That's the way it should be," Ward said. "We had a great season. This program is continuing to get to the level that Coach (Steve) Spurrier wants it to be. Now we're recruiting guys that want to be here. None of them wavered. It was a great class we put together and we didn't have to worry going down the stretch about losing a guy or getting a guy."
Out of the 25 prospects signed, 11 are on the defensive side. The balance across the board on that side of the ball is astounding with three defensive linemen, two linebackers, one spur, three cornerbacks and two safeties.
"We signed to every single position on the defensive side of the ball," Ward said. "We didn't take two defensive tackles, but that wasn't our goal. We feel like we have some good defensive tackles in the program. We would have liked to have had another defensive end, but we signed two. We signed six guys on the perimeter if you count the spur and we signed two inside linebackers. So, we feel like we got 11 good players on defense."
Now that the class is signed, sealed and delivered, the next question is usually this one: how many of the new players will see the field in 2012?
"We hope all of them," Ward said. "We did a good job last year of redshirting a lot of kids. This year, we took a different approach. If they're ready to play and can help us in one phase of the game, whether it's special teams, offense or defense, we plan to play them. But it they're not ready physically or mentally, we won't waste a year on them. Right now, we hope they're all ready to play."
Ward and the USC coaching staff follow a simple rule during the recruiting process - try to sign players that they believe will be better than the ones on the current roster. When you do that, you build a program and improve the chances of winning more games.
"When you're building a top-notch program year in and year out, you try to out-recruit the guys on the roster presently," Ward said. "You hope the guys you just recruited are as good or better than the ones you have on the roster and the ones that just left. Hopefully, we'll find some young guys who will step up and play and push the guys who are here. When you create competition, that's when you get better."
Not surprisingly, Ward faced questions on the recruiting trail about the departures of five assistant coaches, including Assistant Head Coach for Defense Ellis Johnson, who accepted the head coaching job at Southern Miss.
Ward's message to defensive recruits was simple and straightforward - the defensive scheme will be the same in 2012.
"The system is not going to change," Ward said. "Guys are recruited to the school and a system. They're not recruited to be with a coach. The young men we recruited have great character, so they didn't waver when our coaches left. They might have had a question here and there, but they understand things come up where coaches leave. But once we answered their questions, it was all put to rest."
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