By Chris Mahr
There are certain occasions when you’re watching a college football game where you just know that you are watching future NFL players.
Anyone who watched Andrew Luck in 2010 and 2011 knew that he was a future NFL quarterback. The snooze factor aside, anyone watching the first LSU–Alabama game last year knew they were watching about a dozen future NFL defenders (and Trent Richardson). Same goes with the Florida and Georgia teams of the mid- to late-2000s, which seemed to generate first round picks on defense every year.
When I watched South Carolina’s 35–7 beatdown of Georgia on Saturday night, I got the feeling that I was watching a bevy of Gamecocks who have the potential to be NFL standouts. “Men vs. Boys” was an appropriate descriptor for how one-sided the game felt at times.
Funny thing is, South Carolina has been producing pro-caliber talent for a while now. It just happens to be right now, as Steve Spurrier leads the Gamecocks program during its golden age, that everyone is starting to sit up and pay attention.
Of course, dominating the No. 5 team in the country on ESPN Saturday Night College Football will do wonders to raise the profiles of a team’s players. But even before the Gamecocks’ win people have been marveling at South Carolina’s athletes for the past few seasons.
The biggest name, without question, is running back Marcus Lattimore. At 6-foot and a chiseled 218 pounds, he’s been physically ready for the next level since his freshman season of 2010. And he runs with a maturity belying his age. The way that he has come back from a season-ending knee injury from a year ago is a great indicator of how he’ll fight for success in the NFL.
That said, it wasn’t Lattimore that cawed loudest on Saturday night. It was the defensive line that harassed Georgia’s Aaron Murray and the Bulldogs running backs all night. Devin Taylor, Chaz Sutton and Byron Jerideau all showed scary talent. And arguably the best one of the lot, Jadeveon Clowney, has at least one more season of terrorizing SEC offenses.
Lattimore and the defensive line are projected to be just the latest Gamecocks to make an impact at the next level. South Carolina also counts wide receivers (Alshon Jeffery and Sidney Rice), defensive backs (Dunta Robinson and Johnathan Joseph) and tight ends (Jared Cook) among its alums currently in the NFL.
Which brings us back to the question of why the Gamecocks’ ability to produce future NFL standouts hasn’t been recognized until now. It all boils down to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind argument: Because South Carolina wasn’t getting to and winning BCS bowls, they weren’t getting the recognition that their SEC rivals received.
Think of the recent high draft picks from Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Florida, Georgia and even Tennessee. Each program can lay claim to at least one BCS bowl win. All but Georgia has a BCS national title to its name.
South Carolina, now No. 3 in the AP Top 25, has a chance to finally join those teams in that regard. It won’t be easy, as the Gamecocks are on the road at LSU and Florida the next two weeks in addition to closing out the season at intrastate rival Clemson.
But as the thesis of this column dictates, the Gamecocks have the talent to win those games. In fact, they’ve been talented enough to challenge for the SEC title for quite some time. It’s just been in the past two seasons that Steve Spurrier has rounded into form as South Carolina’s coach and has his team in the discussion with the rest of the SEC’s heavyweights.
Rest assured that if South Carolina plays like it did against Georgia for the rest of the season, its penchant for producing future pros will be well apparent to the masses. And everyone will be sitting up and paying attention to what’s happening in Columbia.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.