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South Carolina National Signing Day Recap: Gamecocks take a big step in the Will Muschamp era

Muschamp looks to clean up a problem that plagued the end of the Spurrier era at South Carolina

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Clemson Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Like an angry November blizzard in the heartland of Nebraska, National Signing Day has come, gone and blanketed the landscape with speculation, hype and intrigue.

Come early February each year, we all huddle around televisions and computers to see where these young men will decide to play their “amateur” football careers. It spurs debate on whether or not we the media give NSD too much attention, glorify high school kids who haven’t accomplished anything on the college level or whether recruiting “stars” actually matter.

However, there isn’t a debate on whether or not signing day is important to the lifeblood of every college program in the country. Recruiting matters, even if the rankings aren’t always on point.

Evaluating high school football players for future success is not an exact science. It’s mostly educated guesswork. There are so many variables which go into evaluating a prep recruit I don’t think it’ll ever be close to perfect. Some guys peak in high school, others don’t develop their full potential for another three years into college.

It can really take four years to tell whether or not a class was actually worth its ranking. Take South Carolina’s 2013 class for example.

There was an old Garnet Report article I wrote back in 2013 that’s been lost to the dark bowels of the Internet which pointed out this class was a concern — mainly because South Carolina didn’t grab any of the top in-state players like Mike Williams, Ben Boulware and Michael Hill.

The class was ranked No. 19 in the country by 247Sports, which by most standards would indicate a good haul. However, looking back this was indeed the beginning of the fall for Steve Spurrier.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at South Carolina Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The 2013 conundrum

The lone bright spots in this class were Skai Moore and Pharoh Cooper. Cooper was a dynamic offensive player during some dark seasons in South Carolina football and now makes a living with the Los Angeles Rams.

Moore wound up starting three years before being sidelined with a season-ending injury in 2016. Moore will be back this year on a red shirt, but after him things become bleak.

The top five prospects in the class were as follows: Kelsey Griffin, Larenz Bryant, David Williams, DJ Park and Na’Ty Rogers. Where are they now exactly?

Griffin, the top prospect in the class, was a career rotation player with a handful of starts who was a listed as a backup on the two-deep by season’s end. Larenz Bryant was a similar story to Griffin, a rotational linebacker with a handful of starts whose impact was minimal over four years.

Williams’ career was disappointing to say the least. He showed spurts and flashes of being a dynamic runner like he was recruited to be out of Philadelphia, but a majority of his career before transferring to UConn was spent as an inconsistent backup with one-100 yard rushing game.

Park worked in and out of the starting rotation this season as a redshirt junior — struggling to start at right tackle and eventually moving to back up Mason Zandi at left tackle. Rogers isn’t even on the team anymore following his departure in 2014.

Connor Mitch, David Johnson and Devin Washington -- the next three recruits on the list — aren’t on the team anymore either. Outside of Cooper and Moore, this class — ranked No. 19 in the country — was a disaster.

Why say all of this? It’s to remind fans that a top-20 class isn’t necessarily an indicator of a good group of recruits. Temper your expectations and you won’t be disappointed.

The 2017 class

What we can analyze now is how South Carolina picked up depth where it was needed. Even after the whole diatribe of “beware the No. 19 ranking”, the optics of signing a top-20 class is a good look for Muschamp’s first full cycle. It sends Muschamp can recruit with the other big programs in the country and top level guys like Jamyest Williams want to spend their better years in Columbia.

There are a couple of points I’ll hit on about this class, but if you want to see the full list of recruits and their analysis’ you can see it here.

Winning the State

Earlier I mentioned the biggest problem with the 2013 class was its lack of elite players from the Palmetto State. This became a disturbingly common occurrence over the end of the Spurrier era, even though it was through dominating the state from 2007-2012 that the Ole’ Ball Coach found unprecedented success in South Carolina.

Muschamp didn’t fall into that same trap. South Carolina won the state this year, even as the riches in the Palmetto state weren’t as bountiful as they usually are.

Of 247’s top eight players in South Carolina, the Gamecocks nabbed six of them — including the top three. OrTre Smith, Shi Smith and Brad Johnson all became Gamecocks Wednesday, while Will Register, Summie Carlay and Davonne Bowen rounded out the top eight.

Ortre Smith fills in at receiver to increase the wealth of young talent the Gamecocks already have at wideout, while Shi could fill in at either corner or wide receiver and still be beneficial depth. Johnson brings much-needed depth to the front seven, whether he stays a defensive end or moves to linebacker.

The adage in recruiting always goes: win your state, protect the borders, etc. South Carolina did just that with this class, which should encourage fans their school will continue to keep the best in-state talent coming to Columbia in the future.

Pass rushers, please

South Carolina’s defense has taken a sharp decline over the past couple years because there was no Melvin Ingram, Jadeveon Clowney or Eric Norwood to consistently rush opposing quarterbacks. With Darius English and Marquavius Lewis graduating, there was a serious need to bring in new bodies to replace them.

The aforementioned Brad Johnson, Tyreek Johnson, Aaron Sterling, Javon Kinlaw and MJ Webb all come in as defensive ends who can help build the edge rushing depth for South Carolina. You can never have too many pass rushers, and the Gamecocks picked up five in one class.

The six-foot-six, 305 pound Kinlaw comes from Jones County Junior College and could work into the fold immediately for a starting role. Sterling and Webb are two other true freshmen who could compete for rotation spots right away considering how young the defensive end spots will be in 2017.

The important thing is Muschamp — a defensive mind of the highest order — knows a defense is nothing without a decent pass rush. If anything, South Carolina has the foundation to build a solid pass rush in years to come.

Shore up the back end

To go along with the pass rushing talent Muschamp brought in, South Carolina went in heavy on defensive backs this year. It’s clear Muschamp is focusing on making sure South Carolina has a sure-fire pass defense, and nothing like opening day 2014 ever happens again.

The cream of the crop was Jamyest Williams, who’ll talk about more later. Williams is just the tip of the iceberg with the class’ defensive backs. Kaleb Chalmers, Jaylin Dickerson, Shi Smith (possibly), Keisean Nixon, Tavyn Jackson and Zay Brown make up over 25 percent of the total class.

Nixon and Chalmers both come in from junior college and should be able to fill in immediately for departing starter Chaz Elder and Chris Moody. Williams, if he’s as good as we’ve all made him out to be, could play some his freshman year or even get time as a nickel corner.

So breaking it down — five edge rushers and seven defensive backs make up 12 of the 25 signees who’s primary jobs are to shut down the pass. You can already see where Will Muschamp wants to go with his defense, and it appears he has the foundation already to make it happen.

After some late drama while considering a flip to Georgia, Jamyest Williams decided to remain a South Carolina Gamecock.

Jamyest stays a Gamecock

South Carolina fans probably would’ve preferred the Jamyest Williams saga be a little less dramatic, but either way he’s a Gamecock for sure now. Williams isn’t just a big pickup on the field, he’s also important to the grand recruiting scheme for South Carolina.

In most cases, blue chip recruits want to play with other blue chip recruits. They flock to places like Alabama, Florida State and Southern Cal for a reason. SB Nation’s own Bud Elliot has a blue chip ratio metric that illustrates the schools with the most blue chip recruits are consistently title contenders.

When a player of Williams’ caliber decides to play football in Columbia, it can act as a ripple effect for other recruits — especially from his talent-rich high school Grayson. This rung true back when the Clowneys, the Gilmores and the Rolands were all coming to play at South Carolina and it needs to ring true once more if the Gamecocks want to get back to ten-win status.

Williams can be a gateway to better recruits of the future for South Carolina, and he could wind up being far more important than a shutdown corner on the field.

Summary: Where do we go from here?

By most accounts, this was a successful first go around for Muschamp at South Carolina. There were no devastating decommitments that would have shook the class and South Carolina kept the best players from their home state.

As previously mentioned, we really won’t know how good this class is until 2019 or even 2020. There are a lot of variables that need to pan out before we can start jumping to conclusions on whether or not 2017 was a real success.

However, we do know Will Muschamp has addressed much-needed areas of depth and looks to be building the defense to the style of his liking. With a quarterback and young skill players in place, the football program is trending up at South Carolina.