While we were keeping Marcus Lattimore in our prayers, and congratulating D.J. Swearinger on his high-round selection, the whole University of South Carolina family was also hoping for the best yesterday for our other draft-eligible football alumni.
Well, as Coach Steve Spurrier likes to say, "God smiled on the Gamecocks" on the final day today of the 2013 Draft, when five more of the Garnet and Black joined the ranks of NFL - a huge testament to both the hard work that these young men have put in, as well as the overall talent level that Spurrier & Company have brought to Columbia.
Ace Sanders - Jacksonville (Round 4, Pick 4 - 101st )
To say that fan-favorite, WR and special-teams hero Ace Sanders had a "special 2012 season" for USC would be a gross understatement. He finished last year's season as the SEC co-Special Teams player of the year (the first Gamecock to garner that award) and was selected to the coaches' first and second team All-SEC rosters (as a return specialist and all-purpose player, respectively - yes, that is not a typo); he was also named to the AP's All-SEC second team and some services [CBS, Phil Steele] honored him as a third-team All American.
In 2012, the junior, three-year letterman from Bradenton, Florida, led the 2012 Gamecock pass-catchers in both total receptions (45) and receiving yards (451). But, notwithstanding that solid performance as the X receiver, who among us will forget Ace's eye-popping punt returns? Three went for TD's (one each against Georgia, LSU and Michigan), but the most famous might be the one that didn't score - a spectacular 45 yarder up-the-gut against Mizzou.
A lot of us hoped Ace might return for his senior season, but despite the change-of-direction on whether he would or would not declare back in January, who can really be upset at Ace for leaving early? There was no guarantee he could duplicate his receiving or special teams numbers in 2013; and at 5'7", 173, he wasn't likely to get taller or bigger if he returned to Columbia. Looking at some of the other "big" names from the SEC who fell into the fourth round (Nico Johnson, Jelani Jenkins, Tyler Wilson, Barrett Jones and Sean Porter), not to mention All-SEC caliber teammates like Marcus Lattimore and Devin Taylor, it appears that Ace made the right decision. Good for him.
Jacksonville will be as good place as any for Ace to showcase his skills, and he will get to play home games close to his family. With Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts already on the club, Ace won't be a contender to break into the WR starting rotation, but our sister blog Big Cat Country is juiced about his speed and special teams prowess. Thanks for the great memories, Ace, and good luck and many happy returns with the Jags!
Devin Taylor - Detroit (Round 4, Pick 35 - 135th)
We were probably all hoping for a bigger statistical 2012 season for Devin "Mr. Don't Say Nuthin'" Taylor, a three-year starter at DE and four-year letterman from Beaufort, South Carolina. Playing opposite JD Clowney last year, Devin finished up his senior season with a very respectable 40 tackles (8.5 for loss), 3 sacks, 3 hurries and 5 pass break-ups in 2012. His career numbers were also a very worthy 161 tackles (35.5 for loss), 18.5 sacks, and 22 hurries - placing him as 6th in sacks, and 2nd in tackles-for-loss all-time for the Gamecocks. When you think of Abraham, Norwood, Ingram and Clowney, that is a rarified company. While Devin missed out an All-SEC honors, he was invited to both the NFL Combine and the East-West Shrine Game.
Devin's breakout season was as a sophomore, when he was an AP first-team All-SEC performer (second team All-SEC by the coaches). Next year, playing opposite the two-headed monster of Melvin Richardson/Jadeveon Clowney as a junior he did not earn the same recognition - but I argued about a year ago that Devin really turned in just as strong a performance his junior season as his 1st team All-SEC sophomore campaign, but missed out on all-conference honors because of huge seasons by other SEC performers. Well, he never morphed into a new Melvin Ingram or Eric Norwood during his final go-around at Carolina, but his rock-solid consistency was something we could always count on game-in-and-game-out.
Devin goes to Ford Field to play on a stout Lions D-line. Over at sister SB Nation Blog Pride of Detroit the Lion faithful seem happy with Devin as adding depth to their DL. Here's hoping that the oft-troubled Ndamukong Suh can help Taylor grow as a NFL-starting DE, and at the same time learn from Taylor's famously low-key leadership style. It will be missed in Columbia! In keeping with his taciturn reputation, the big-man from Beaufort, there was no public comment I could find today from him! Thanks, Devin, and good luck in the Motor City!
DeVonte Holloman - Dallas (Round 6, Pick 17 - 185th)
Unsurprisingly, the fiery DeVonte Holloman was not happy about falling to the sixth round - “I will never forget this feeling…HELL TO PAY!”. Personally, I was thinking it was likely that Holloman - who finished his USC career at Spur with 207 career tackles (140 solo) and 3 INT, 2 sacks and 13 pass break-ups - would possibly go in the late 5th or the 6th in light of the struggles that the equally talented Antonio Allen has had with making the New York Jets last year. Spur is a thankless yet critical position on our 4-2-5 defense. Although DeVonte missed out on All-SEC honors as a senior, he never complained about the move from Safety to Spur; he was a vocal defensive leader for the Cocks. His contributions wee notable enough to garner an invitation to both the Combine and the East-West Shrine game.
A starter from his sophomore through senior seasons (missing two starts due to his out-of-character DUI arrest suspension in 2011 and one start as a result of concussion later that year), DeVonte came to us from South Pointe High School in Rock Hill, South Carolina - along with Buffalo Bill starting CB Stephon Gilmore (both who had been 'hotboxed' into committing to Clemson before they realized they would do better at Carolina). DeVonte was one of the first our four, successive South Carolina "Mr. Footballs" that would wear the Garnet & Black, and he certainly delivered throughout his standout Gamecock career, on the field and also in helping us land former South Pointe H.S. teammate Jadeveon Clowney. His big-time forced fumble in the second quarter Outback Bowl was huge (though we fumbled right back the next series - oh, well).
At Blogging the Boys, the Cowboys in SB Nation feel he's a prime candidate to step into the 'Boys' "Sam" backer slot. Despite his late-round status, I have no doubt that DeVonte will make the club, and believe - like Jasper Brinkley did at Minnesota (and now Arizona) - that he will be an immediate special teams contributor and later a LB starter within a season or two at the most. Even though there was a ton of well-known SEC/ACC names talent taken along with him in the 6th round (including Josh Evans, Corey Fuller, Ryan Swope, Andre Ellington, Cornelius Washington, Bacarri Rambo, Cobi Hamilton, Spencer Ware, etc.), if falling to the sixth round motivates DeVonte, then more power to him. Thanks for being a great Gamecock, DeVonte, and good luck in Big "D".
T.J. Johnson - Cincinnati (Round 7, Pick 45 - 251st)
Steady. Solid. Strong. Those are the words that come to mind when I think about four year letterman and captain T.J. Johnson from Aynor, South Carolina. Johnson started every game he ever played in as a Gamecock (53) - a school record. He is the only Gamecock in school history to be a starter in four wins over Clemson - and that was under no less than three OL coaches, too.
T.J. was a Rimington watch-list honoree his last two seasons, and made the Coaches' All-SEC 2nd Team his senior season, along with invitations to the NFL Combine and the East-West Shrine Game. Oh, and yeah - he was on the SEC Academic Honor Roll that last three seasons, also.
Over at SB Nation's Cicny Jungle, the Bengals' brain trust didn't have much to say about T.J. good or bad, but at Bleacher Report, writer Chris Roling says T.J. will be battling Kyle Cook and Trevor Robinson for a roster spot, and might be a practice squad guy. Personally, I think Johnson is going to be one of those smart, stubborn OL who will play for a decade or more in the NFL. Here's hoping I'm right. Thanks T.J. for being a great Carolinian and good luck in Cincinnati!
Justice Cunningham - Indianapolis (Round 7, Pick 48 - 254th)
"Mr. Irrelevant 2013"
OK. Nobody hopes the be "Mr. Irrelevant." Sure - its a bummer to play big-time college ball and watch 253 guys go ahead of you in the draft. But then there are 253 guys behind you (including some of your teammates) that would give their left ... well, you know ... to be a drafted player. And, oh yeah, you get to play in Lucas Oil Field with Andrew Luck. And the last Cock to win the less-than-coveted "Low Award" had a pretty spectacular NFL career. So you got all that going for you, Justice!
Justice Cunnigham came to USC from Pageland, South Carolina and saw action in every game during his Carolina career (53), making 23 starts [11 his final year] and being named an offensive team captain for his senior season. More of a blocker than a pass-catching TE, Justice nevertheless hauled in 23 passes for 324 yards during his final year at Carolina (including a career-high six receptions and 108 yards against UT) - and there . For me, the most enduring memory I have of Justice will be the the monster three man block he threw against Clemson in 2011 to spring Connor Shaw's TD run. Sweet daddy, that was big!
Will Justice make the Colts' roster? I'm hopeful but over at Stampede Blue the feeling is that TE is the most "stacked position" on the Indy squad and the consensus seems to be that Justice's best hope is as a special teams player; if he gets cut or relegated to the practice squad, then perhaps another NFL club will pick him up. He did get a NFL Combine invite, so he's been seen by a lot of other scouts. Thanks for being a great Gamecock, Justice and good luck in Indy!
Good luck to all the drafted Gamecock! Go Cocks!
For more SEC draft analysis check out THAT’S A WRAP: RECORD DRAFT HAUL FOR THE SEC. over at MrSEC. John Pennington notes that 61 SEC players - basically 1/4 of the entire draft - was not only tops in SEC history, but the most ever in a NFL Draft by a single conference. The next best conference was the oft-maligned ACC with 31 - which is the greatest disparity ever between a conference with the most picks in any draft and the second finisher. Our seven USC draftees was fifth behind Bama and LSU (9 each) and Florida and Georgia (8 each). Ole Miss was the only SEC school without a draftee (but never mind that somehow, someway they managed to land the number 1 recruiting class in the whole country ... riiiiiigggghhhttttt).