For all of South Carolina's on-the-field success in recent years, nothing is as strong a signal of the Gamecocks' incredible program overhaul than what's expected to take place on Thursday night in New York City.
From 1993 to 2005, the pre-Spurrier SEC era, South Carolina put an average of just 1.8 players into the NFL Draft every year. After Steve Spurrier took over for Lou Holtz in 2005, that number doubled to almost 3.6. Since South Carolina last fell to arch-rival Clemson in 2008, NFL teams have snatched up 4.8 Gamecocks in the draft every year.
That's still not an incredible clip, where incredible is defined by what happens every year in Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge. In fact, it's only recently that South Carolina has been able to draw even with arch-rival Clemson when it comes to churning out NFL talent. But it's symbolic of the way that Steve Spurrier has transformed South Carolina from a program that would occasionally luck its way into a five-star signee to a program that is increasingly a destination for top-tier talent.
USC's tiny 2014 graduating/early declaring class of eight means that the Gamecocks won't eclipse their previous single-year high of seven drafted players (2009, 2013). But what this year's crop of Gamecocks lack in quantity, they make up for in quality. In case you missed it, Jadeveon Clowney is expected to be the very first player taken in the 2014 NFL Draft.
When Clowney signed with the Gamecocks on Feb. 14, 2011, South Carolina fans knew he was going to be their best shot at putting a No. 1 overall pick in the NFL since the Saints took George Rogers in 1981. Superstars Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery were already on campus when the ink was drying on Clowney's National Letter of Intent, but a trend of decreased demand for non-quarterback skill position players meant that it was pretty unlikely that either would go 1:1.
Clowney was an athletic freak, a once-in-a-generation prospect who could have passed for an NFL starter as a teenager despite playing a physically demanding position like defensive end. Even as a 17-year-old, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft was his to lose, and through two seasons in Columbia, he had seemingly done nothing but bolster his claim as the best amateur player in all of football.
The 2013 season took some unexpected twists and turns, but Clowney ultimately ended up right back where he started. Whether or not he actually gets taken first will depend mostly on the positional needs of the team making the pick, but for the time being it appears that teams are impressed enough with what Clowney can do that they are willing to delay addressing short-term positional deficiencies for Jadeveon's considerable upside.
Unlike Rogers' selection 33 years ago, Clowney -- whether he goes first, second, third, or fourth -- isn't just a blip on the radar. He's the high water mark of a steadily rising tide that began when Steve Spurrier came to Columbia in December of 2004 and a gigantic neon sign that says, "If you come to South Carolina, you can be like me."
If he is taken first overall, though, it would give South Carolina yet another stat to rub in the faces of Clemson fans:
No. 1 picks from South Carolina: 2
No. 1 picks from Clemson: 0