I love the SEC and Saturday’s in the southeast during college football season. There is no better conference in America when it comes to college football than the SEC. The rich tradition of the league and the list of stars that have come from this league that changed the game of football and the way that it was played and coached.
Let’s kick this off with a little run-through of some of those names. The coaches are legendary, from Paul William “Bear” Bryant, Pat Dye, and Johnny Majors to Urban Meyer and Nick Saban, this conference has seen coaches that changed the game forever.
Its player’s history is extremely rich too. From Peyton Manning to Herschel Walker, to Bo Jackson and Julio Jones, national championships and thousands of players that have moved on to play in the NFL. The prestige surrounding the conference is incredible, and it makes our Saturdays better in the long run of the fall and winter months.
Every season, there are NFL prospects lined up in large numbers looking to make an impact on the future NFL. The game that they love, that they have given so much for and pursued an almost impossible dream is becoming a reality for many of these players. This, to me, is one of the biggest things that really makes this game special.
The South Carolina Gamecocks joined the conference in 1992, leaving the ranks of independents in the game. They had been a part of the ACC for a decade and a half but moved on in 1971. The school struggled to stay relevant in the SEC until the arrival of Lou Holtz, who took the team through his first season at 0-11 in 1999 and flipped them into an 8-4 squad in 2000, and Outback Bowl Champions. Holtz ran the program until Steve Spurrier took over in 2005, and the team saw sustained success throughout both coaches’ tenures.
The school has produced some real talent in the SEC, like defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, defensive lineman Melvin Ingram, defensive end John Abraham, wide receiver Sydney Rice, wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey, and safety DJ Swearinger.
Who South Carolina lost from last season
This past season, South Carolina surrendered one of the top talents in the class, defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw. Kinlaw had ridiculous length and power and was a dominant force because of his sheer size. Kinlaw went 14th overall in the NFL Draft to the San Francisco 49ers.
Next to Kinlaw, oftentimes, was defensive end DJ Wonnum, who was selected in the 4th round. Primarily a run stopper, Wonnum was raw and had a lot of work to do at the next level to be a real impact player.
Wide receiver Bryan Edwards was another fantastic talent who had a big body and an impressive catch radius. Edwards had made quite the circus catches throughout his career, but the consistency was the key with Edwards. He went in the 3rd round to the Las Vegas Raiders.
Linebacker TJ Brunson was a 7th round pick-up by the New York Giants. The main problem that people had with Brunson was a lack of real athleticism and the fact that he didn’t really progress throughout his career in South Carolina.
South Carolina has been a good pipeline of talent to the NFL over the last several years, producing 32 draft picks over the last 10 years and 60 prospects over the last 20 years.
The prospects this season
South Carolina is rebuilding, and has a lot of younger talent up-and-coming that aren’t quite draft eligible yet. Here are the five prospects that you need to know about entering the season.
WR Shi Smith (Sr)
#13 | 5’10” | 185 lbs | Union County (Union, South Carolina)
Believe it or not, Shi Smith might have been the most talented receiver on this roster that included the likes of Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards. Now, it’s Shi’s turn to shine. With graduate transfer quarterback Collin Hill arriving from Colorado State to potentially start over Ryan Hilinski, Smith’s value will mean more to the overall success of this team.
Smith is simply explosive. The man has a phenomenal skill set and is simply uncontainable. He was used primarily out of the slot in the Gamecocks scheme but looks to transition to the outside this season as the #1 receiver. He’s very quick and manipulative in his advanced route concepts, showing an impressive release and good body control.
Smith could be crisper with his breaks. His footwork is often lazy on his breaks as he mossies’ into his cut. His hands are a little bit of an issue as he hasn’t been the most consistent receiver most of his career.
I think that it’s going to be hard to break into the NFL over the next few years as a slot receiver, which is what Smith projects best as, because of the overload of talent at the position over the last several years, not to mention all of the different styles of slot receiver people are beginning to use. He is, however, an explosive athlete who can contribute immediately on special teams as well as provide depth at the receiver position.
Grade: Future Impact (2+ Years Back-Up).
IOL Sadarius Hutcherson (Rs-Sr)
#50 | 6’3″ | 320 lbs | Huntingdon (Huntingdon, Tennessee)
Sadarius Hutcherson now enters his third season as a full-time starter, having pinned time at both of the guard positions as well as left tackle. An incredibly versatile talent, Hutcherson was named to Bruce Feldman’s “Freaks” list because of his work in the weight room.
He’s an interesting prospect by all means. It’s hard to see his game translating to the NFL though unless he knocks some weight off. He’s not quick enough to play at tackle, but his strength and technique certainly fit the tackle position better. I think he would be susceptible to powerful interior guys and could be overwhelmed with strength in the interior. On the outside, he would be susceptible to the outside rush.
Across the board, Hutcherson is very raw. His footwork is active, but he doesn’t set for his anchor very well and is almost too flamboyant with his feet. His punch is powerful, but his hand placement isn’t great at all.
I’d like to see how South Carolina uses him this season and how he responds to the position this upcoming season before I make any decisions regarding his NFL future projection.
Grade: Project (Uncertain Future).
EDGE Aaron Sterling (Sr)
#15 | 6’0″ | 240 lbs | Tucker (Atlanta, Georgia)
Aaron Sterling has been on the field for South Carolina since he was a true freshman, the 2017 season. He has appeared in 33 games over his career, and made 15 starts. Last season, his first full season as a starter, Sterling led the team making 10 tackles for loss, and tied the teams high with 6 sacks.
Sterling is a very impressively advanced rusher in his own right. He’s technically sound, showing decisiveness and a variety of moves that he uses to attack blockers. His hand placement and punch are sublime and he has excellent upper body strength. Sterling has good burst, is very quick, and showed a good set of wheels to move when he needs to.
His run defense is good too. He plays excellent contain, and shows good tackling form as well great pursuit angles.
The only real issue that I see with Sterling is that he is a good bit shorter than the average defensive lineman, and he can lose track of the ball while in traffic. That’s going to limit him significantly to a career rotational role.
Grade: Low Impact (Future Starter).
CB Jaycee Horn (Jr)
#1 | 6’0″ | 200 lbs | Alpharetta (Alpharetta, Georgia)
Already entering his third full season as a starter at South Carolina, Jaycee Horn was one of these highly touted recruits who made his way onto the field as a freshman. He was named to the 2018 SEC All-Freshman Team, and has been on the SEC Academic Honor Roll as well. Horn also was awarded the Rex Enright Defensive Player of the Spring in 2019.
Horn is a very physical talent himself, displaying good athletic traits and good speed. He stays in the play by being nasty and gritty, never giving up on the play and constantly pushing against the receiver. He’s very smart too and recognizes concepts quickly. It’s evident that e spends a lot of extra time in the film room.
I think that Horn is more of a run defender than his counterpart, Israel Mukuamu, and is more effective in the slot. His hand technique when he engages with receivers is solid, and allows him to control the player out of press more effectively.
I think Horn is a step slow for man coverage and will be a liability on an island. He’s susceptible to deep routes and can’t keep up with faster receivers. I like Horn’s potential as a slot type cornerback, and I think he will have a long career in the NFL as a #2.
Grade: Low Impact (Future Starter).
CB Israel Mukuamu (Jr)
#24 | 6’3″ | 200 lbs | Parkway (Bossier City, Louisiana)
Israel Mukuamu is the definition of a lanky, prototype cornerback, the body type that most NFL defenses are seeking after in this modern NFL. Second team All-SEC last season, Mukuamu started all 12 games, but made the start against North Carolina at safety. He has some versatility to his game, so it’s definitely something that NFL teams will monitor this season.
Mukuamu is a very physical cornerback, and I think that’s how he generally stays in the play. He manhandled several bigger receivers (like Tee Higgins at Clemson) and used his physicality in press coverage against faster receivers (like Henry Ruggs III at Alabama) to limit their effectiveness. He’s very athletic and he has sub-4.4 speed.
He’s also very smart and instinctual. If you watch his two interceptions against Jake Fromm and the Georgia Bulldogs in the Gamecocks upset win, you will see that he shows all of his football IQ. There were several points of the game where he was the more athletic player, the more physical player, and the smarter player.
I think that if Mukuamu has a weakness, it’s that he can get grabby. He did take several pass interference calls throughout the season for being too handsy deep down the field. That’s part of his game, and that’s something that a team is going to have to be okay with.
Grade: Low Impact (Future Starter).
South Carolina Gamecocks 2021 NFL Draft Projections
South Carolina is struggling to stay relevant in the SEC East, now being dominated by Florida and Georgia with Tennessee on the uptick. The schedule for the Gamecocks is tough, they have Texas A&M this season at home and LSU on the road as well as the gauntlet of Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and Clemson.
The best prospect on this team is cornerback Israel Mukuamu, hands down. He has tremendous upside and because of his size I suspect that NFL teams are already falling in love with him as we speak. Mukuamu isn’t alone in the secondary, as Jaycee Horn is very good too, both being extremely intense players.
I think we’re going to hear a lot about Aaron Sterling over the course of the season. He might be one of the best pass rushers in the SEC this season himself, as he ia very technically sound and only really needs to put on a little bit more weight to be devastating.
Shi Smith could show everyone that he’s a true #1 receiver this season and bolster his stock as well. He’s got the explosion and athleticism to be there, now we just need to see him put it all together.
Low Impact (Future Starter)
EDGE Aaron Sterling
CB Jaycee Horn
CB Israel Mukuamu^
Future Impact (2+ Years Back-Up)
WR Shi Smith^
Project (Uncertain Future)
IOL Sadarius Hutcherson
^Denotes that prospect has more than a 50% chance of improving draft grade over the 2020 season.