What a difference a year makes.
Sure, it's a timeworn cliche. But when I think about Alshon Jeffery being selected in the mid-second round of the 2012 NFL Draft, as the 7th receiver drafted, it's a cliche that quickly comes to mind.
Last year at this time, every Gamecock fan took it is an irreducible article of faith that Alshon Jeffery would be a top 5 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft - possibly the number 1 overall depending on who picked first. Certainly, we all thought that he would be the number 1 wide receiver to be selected - with only Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State in the conversation as a possible rival for pride of place. After all, by the time the 2010 season went into the books, Jeffery statistically led all receivers in the SEC by a country mile - including 2011 NFL Draft first rounders A.J. Green (4th overall) and Julio Jones (6h overall) - with 88 receptions for 1,517 yards and nine touchdowns. Coming out of spring camp in 2011, everything looked even more promising for the young man from St. Matthews, South Carolina for what would be his third and sure-to-be-final season with the Gamecocks.
First, he would be catching balls from a fifth year RS Senior quarterback, Stephen Garcia, who loved to throw to him even when he was blanketed, and who had promised (no, guaranteed, even) that he would dedicate himself to the craft of being a better QB.
Second, he also could depend on All-SEC RB - and potential Heisman Trophy/Doak Walker Award candidate - Marcus Lattimore to establish the run. How could opposing teams roll a safety over the top, or drop into nickel or dime sets, and still hope to contain Marcus in the second level? Alshon was sure to get numerous one-on-one opportunities.
Finally, the 2011 schedule was extremely favorable for South Carolina. After the early game with the UGA Bulldogs, which would likely determine the East Division champion, the only truly elite opponent left on the calendar would be Arkansas. He would romp through the depleted defenses of Florida, Auburn and Tennessee, and feast on lesser SEC squads like Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State.
At this time last year, the rest of the CFB World and the SEC-watchers agreed that 2011 would crown Alshon's career. He was widely acclaimed as the best returning WR in the SEC for 2011 and it was said he was nearly impossible to contain in one-on-one. He was likely to break the century-mark in receptions - and surely a lock to reach double-digits in TD receptions. He was a tough guy who didn't miss games and seemed immune to the injury bug. He was not only going to break USC receiving records, but shatter them. The sky was the limit back in April, 2011.
What a difference a year makes.
So when Alshon was drafted on Friday night as the 45th overall pick - without any cameras on him, and with little fanfare, not to mention a healthy dose of criticism from the various talking heads at ESPN and the NFL Network, it's a fair question to ask "what happened?" Or, perhaps, more acerbically, to want to know "who is to blame" for his draft plummet. Let's take a look at the three men who bear the most culpability.
Read more after The Jump.
1. Stephen Garcia. A year ago, the troubled but talented QB from Lutz, Florida had missed the first week of 2010 spring camp while serving out a suspension for breaking curfew and drinking the night before the Chik-Fil-A Bowl loss (his 4th suspension) Garcia then nearly completely crapped completely out on April 6, 2011 when he was suspended once again for disrupting a mandatory meeting. By late April, though, most of us were convinced he'd be back - and hoping he would chastened enough to realize that he was close to throwing away any chance at a NFL career of his own by his repeated off-the-field problems. When Garcia was finally reinstated by the end of May, 2011, he said all the right things, and looked like he was finally willing to adopt the mantle of leadership expected of a 5th year senior QB going into the 2011 season.
Alas, it was not to be. Despite a few flashes of his old self (his inspired relief appearance in the ECU game, and the first-half roll-out 34 yard TD pass to Alshon in the UGA game), Garcia struggled mightily as the season wore on - becoming progressively sloppier and less confident with each game. By the time he was benched after the Auburn loss, he had thrown at a meager 51.7% completion rate, with only 844 yards and four passing touchdowns against nine interceptions. He was clearly a shadow of his former self and Coach Spurrier had to rely almost entirely on the ground game and defense as a result. Accordingly, it was Jeffery who suffered the most - totaling just 19 catches for 332 yards and two touchdowns before the UK game. The 18 yards-per-catch was impressive, but the two TDs in five games was an eye-catching slump - with just 4 combined receptions (and no TDs) against Vandy and Navy - and it was all clearly Garcia's fault to anyone paying attention to the program.
When Redshirt Sophomore Connor Shaw was promoted to QB1 for the UK game, things looked up - Alshon caught 2 TD passes and had 95 yards against the 'Cats. But Marcus Lattimore went down the following week with a blown ACL against Mississippi State. Notwithstanding AJ1's heroic catch against State with 3:50 left to give us a 14-12 win, with Lattimore sidelined for the rest of the season, opposing D coordinators could now afford to double-team and scheme against Jeffery - and they consistently did.
To compound the situation, while Connor Shaw was courageous with his running, he was hyper-conservative in his pass selection - declining to thrown into the double-coverage on AJ1 where Garcia would have been devil-may-care. Add to the fact that we were primarily relying on a ground-attack and short passing situations, and it's clear that Alshon was the one who was going to suffer. Eight receptions and no TDs each against Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida wrecked Alshon's season from a statistical standpoint. It wasn't until the fourth quarter of the Citadel game that Jeffery got his first TD pass since Mississippi State game a month and four days earlier. In the regular-season finale against Clemson, Jeffery had 1 TD catch - but only 2 receptions.
It's axiomatic that you can't catch the ball if the ball isn't thrown your way. It's certainly not Connor Shaw's fault - he was a new starter, thrust into the unenviable position of replacing the super-popular Garcia, and not certain he even had the full support of his team. Shaw wasn't going to lose it in the air, and it's not like Spurrier and G.A. Mangus were calling many passing plays to begin with - Shaw had just 18, 24, 21, 18 and 21 attempts against Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida, The Citadel and Clemson respectively, and those low numbers were not simply because Shaw decided to run when he might have thrown (though that was part of it). One of the things that got us to 11 wins was that Shaw threw just three picks in those last 5 games; and none against Florida or Clemson.
No - the blame for the fall-off in Alshon's production rests entirely with Garcia. For three years, Garcia and Jeffery were partners, and despite constant and unwavering support from Jeffery (at least publicly), it was Garcia who let his partner down. It was Garcia who failed to uphold his end of the bargain. Had the Garcia who showed up for the 2012 USC Pro Day been the Garcia who reported for 2011 August camp, it should have turned out differently. Had Jeffery simply duplicated his 2010 numbers (80+ catches, 1500+ yards) he would have been a first rounder. Had Garcia delivered 100+ catches, or 1700+ yards, or 15 TD, then Jeffery would have been an early first rounder and the toast of the draft regardless of what weight he played at, or how crisp he ran his routes. We don't have to play the what-if Game in terms of wins, or whether Garcia could have guided us back to the SECCG - if he had played up to his potential, he would have gotten enough balls to Jeffery to launch him into the draft.
The sad reality, however, is that Alshon Jeffery paid a heavy price for Stephen Garcia's self-destructiveness; the sadder fact is that had Jeffery gone to Southern Cal, Matt Barkley would have thrown him into the early first round in the 2012 draft. That's a hard thing for a Gamecock to say, but it's a hard truth that can't be escaped no matter how much we dislike Lane Kiffin or hate that the "other USC" stole our initials and made them their own.
2. Eugene Parker. Some of you might be unfamiliar with this name, but he plays an important role in how Alshon Jeffery ended up in the second round. A former Purdue basketball player and a lawyer, Parker is widely acclaimed as one of the most influential agents in the NFL and runs his own firm - Maximum Sports Management. His client list runs the gamut from Emmett Smith to Ndamukong Suh, as well as recent first-round WR picks Dez Bryant and Michael Crabtree. Parker is famous as the first agent to ever present a player into the NFL Hall of Fame - which he did for his friend and client Deion Sanders. He probably seemed like a sure-bet as an agent when AJ1 signed on with him in mid-February 2012.
Parker, obviously, could do nothing about Alshon's precipitous statistical drop-off in 2011. But he was tasked with doing something about the perception problems that started to crop up as early as late February-early March. You remember them well, of course - that AJ1 had trouble controlling his weight; that he was slow; that he was a sloppy route-runner; and that he had trouble separating from elite CFB corners. Not long thereafter, you started to hear even more outlandish slurs - that Alshon was lazy; that he had "off the field problems"; and that he lacked "work ethic".
Most of it was total b.s. Alshon didn't play any heavier in 2011 than he did in 2010 when he was the toast of the SEC. But perception is it's own form of reality. Clearly the weight and speed issues - combined with the lack of 2011 productivity - were a big concern to NFL teams. Pre-season photos of him in the new UnderArmour unis (including the cover of S.I.) showed a paunch that while going mostly unremarked in August, 2011 became talismans of his poor fitness and lack of work ethic in March, 2012. It was rumored he had ballooned up to 248 and that he couldn't run even a 4.8/40.
Parker dispatched Alshon to the Athlete's Compound at Tampa's Saddlebrook resort, and Alshon committed himself to several weeks of nine-hour days of track work, route-running and lifting. Sounds like a serious commitment, right? He definitely came out looking leaner and fitter; and he wowed everyone by showing up at the NFL Combine at a svelte 216 after conceding that he had played at 230 in his final season at South Carolina.
But while AJ1 declined to run at the Combine - not all that unusual for guys looking to shave a precious tenth of a second (or two) off their 40 time - he did something completely inexplicable: he declined to participate in any of the combine drills. For a top WR prospect claiming to have the best hands in football, but battling a perception problem, it was a stunning - and foolish - decision. If he was injured he could have (and should have) said so. But by failing to offer a rationale for skipping drills where he should have shined, he simply raised more questions than he answered. Had he been on a crash diet? Was he unable to play at his new weight? Was he some kind of diva? Worse, Alshon's decision to skip the drills looked bad in comparison to Justin Blackmon - who also skipped the 40 time trials - but looked sharp in the drills despite a bad hamstring. When it was all said and done, Blackmon, Notre Dame's Michael Floyd, Baylor's Kendall Wright and Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill all came out looking like better prospects (even Wright, who ran a poor 40 at the Combine). Despite turning in a decent Pro Day with a sub 4,5/40, Alshon couldn't overcome the perception - both in the media and the various NFL front-offices - that he was a second-tier prospect.
Was it Parker's decision for Alshon to skip the drills? Who else's decision could it have been otherwise? It was a judgment call that blew up in his client's face. Had Alshon shown he could hit routes and catch as well as anyone at the Combine, he could have worked his way into the first round. He might be wearing a Titan or Niners uniform next fall instead of a Bear's jersey. Does it make Parker a bad agent? No. But was it bad advice? Absolutely. Eugene Parker will still get great clients in the future; but it's a safe bet that none of them will skip Combine Drills. In the meantime, it's Alshon who will be a little poorer - and a little more frustrated - than he should have been because his agent made a terrible, costly and incomprehensible decision.
3. Alfonzo Dennard. Alshon schooled Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard in the Capitol One Bowl. Dennard retaliated by taking a swing at Jeffery at the beginning of the second half. Jeffery pushed back, but he never threw a punch. Dennard should have been ejected and was - but Jeffery was also tossed. The CapOne press corps tried to rectify the injustice by naming AJ1 the Bowl MVP, but the damage was done. Alshon now had to dog questions about his character (and his "inability to separate" despite the fact Dennard was literally draped over him every chance he got).
Rather than Dennard bearing all of the blame for starting a fight - as he deserved - it was Jeffery who was pilloried in the national media. You never heard a word about Dennard being downgraded for the fight - not until his recent arrest for assaulting a police officer, that is. Dennard not only deprived Jeffery of a chance to shine in the second half when the game became a blow-out, but tainted Jeffery with his unsportsmanlike attitude and violent temper. If you think should be blamed for pushing back after Dennard swung at him, then you don't "get" football or you're a garden-variety SEC-hater.
What about Alshon Jeffery himself? You might say there's a name missing from this list - Alshon Jeffery himself. After all, by the end of the 2010 season, there was no doubt in anyone's mind - least of all Jeffery's - that he was coming out after the 2011 campaign barring a serious injury. He could have worked on his weight, you might say; or worked on his speed; or worked on his route-running. You could say all that - and there'd be some truth to it.
But compared to what Garcia, Parker and Dennard wrought, I think Jeffery's contributions to his plight are not as consequential. A different QB. A different agent. A different bowl opponent. Any of those things (particular the first two) and AJ1 would have been South Carolina's third first-rounder taken in the 2012 draft. What a shame for him - and for us - that it didn't turn out differently for him.