COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson drove 75 minutes north to Rock Hill's South Pointe High three springs ago to watch cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the Palmetto State's top-ranked recruit for the class of 2009. Johnson wound up seeing the nation's top-ranked recruit for the class of 2011.
Jadeveon Clowney was a freshman who had played tailback the previous fall. Stallions coach Bobby Carroll had moved Clowney to defensive end, and South Pointe's offense had struggled throughout spring practice because Clowney kept blowing up plays. Johnson knew he'd better start recruiting Clowney immediately. What followed was a nearly three-year courtship that ended Monday when Clowney faxed his National Letter-of-Intent to South Carolina.
"Even as a ninth-grader at spring practice, he just kind of jumped out at you," Johnson said. "I didn't know how big he would get. He was really a long, rangy kid at that time, but he's got a huge frame. Those kind of players, those guys who are that good, they stand out even at that age."
Johnson was the point man for South Carolina's recruitment of Clowney, but he had plenty of help. Safeties coach Lorenzo Ward joined the Clowney recruitment team a few months ago and forged a bond with Clowney even as Alabama made a strong sales pitch and in-state rival Clemson made a fantastic late push led by receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Jeff Scott and head coach Dabo Swinney. As the days dwindled before Clowney's announcement, it was Ward who had the recruit's ear. "I asked Jadeveon to do me a favor," Ward said. "I said, 'I want you to call me every day.' And he did."
But Johnson said the Gamecocks couldn't have gotten Clowney without the efforts of current Gamecocks and former South Pointe teammates Gilmore and DeVonte Holloman. If Gilmore or Holloman had expressed any qualms about their experience at South Carolina, they could have torpedoed South Carolina's recruitment of Clowney. While coaches will always accentuate the positive, players -- particularly old friends -- rarely sugarcoat their opinions of a school. Gilmore and Holloman worked hard to get their former teammate in garnet and black.
"I had the best Facebook and the best Twitter of all the recruiters because I had Gilmore and Holloman," Johnson said. "It really wasn't a fair fight."
So what happens now? Clowney's academic numbers are an issue, but head coach Steve Spurrier said they aren't as dire as the grades of South Carolina's other signees. (For his part, former South Pointe coach Carroll said, "I'd bet my paycheck" when asked Monday if he believed Clowney would qualify.)
In other words, Gamecocks coaches know several of the 32 players they signed in this class won't qualify. This isn't an uncommon tactic in the SEC, where eight of the 12 schools (including South Carolina) are chronic oversigners.
South Carolina actually found itself hung up this year by a two-year-old SEC rule that allows schools to sign 28 players to a letter-of-intent between National Signing Day and May 31. Four of the members of this class enrolled in January, so they count toward last year's total. By Feb. 3, South Carolina had signed 27 more players. That left only one open spot for Clowney. (Of the 28, only 25 are allowed to start as freshmen in the fall. So South Carolina still has a numbers problem.)
That spot was open because South Carolina coaches told previously committed players they couldn't sign on Signing Day. Atlanta defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin told GamecockCentral.com that he is waiting on a qualifying test score and that he might have to go to prep school. Meanwhile, Groveland, Fla., linebacker Jordan Montgomery -- another potential prep school candidate -- said he still hopes to eventually make it to Columbia.
The SEC rule could actually help Mauldin and Montgomery if they get their academics in order. Because they didn't sign with South Carolina, every coach in America is welcome to continue recruiting them and offer a scholarship for the fall. Had they signed, they would have been tied to South Carolina and could have been caught in a numbers crunch, had they qualified academically.
South Carolina coaches had better hope their math is correct. They oversigned thinking several of their recruits wouldn't make it academically. If they guessed wrong, Spurrier could find himself getting ripped as much as LSU coach Les Miles did last year. Several members of LSU's class unexpectedly qualified, and the Tigers had to yank scholarships from two signees.
If Clowney qualifies, he won't be getting his scholarship yanked. The Gamecocks will give him a chance to compete for the starting job immediately. "There is a learning curve," Johnson warned. "The SEC is a different neighborhood." And Spurrier, who coached a physically similar player in Jevon Kearse at Florida, said South Carolina could do some interesting things with Clowney.
"He's not always going to have his hand on the ground playing defensive end," Spurrier said Monday. "You can always put a tight end wherever that rushing defensive end is, or have a back just sitting there. Jadeveon, he'll be coming from all different angles. Right, Coach Johnson?" Johnson laughed, and he said the Gamecocks would try to use Clowney in many of the same ways they used Eric Norwood, who led South Carolina in sacks from 2007-09.
But Norwood didn't come to Columbia with the advance hype Clowney will. Spurrier said it will be his staff's job to keep Clowney's "head on straight." If they can, the coach has high hopes for the Clowney era at South Carolina.
"This was a big day for us," Spurrier said. "Signing players like Jadeveon ups our expectations. Certainly that's what we want to do. We want to raise our expectations as high as we can around here. We want to achieve the SEC championship -- or more -- in the next three or four years."