There's no question the Southeastern Conference is a football powerhouse, and this includes the South Carolina Gamecocks. The team opened the 2012 season with six straight wins, including a 35-7 shellacking of number five Georgia, before suffering their only two losses of the season, number one to LSU and number two Florida.
It's hard to consider an 11-2 record as disappointing, but South Carolina, led by head coach Steve Spurrier, had intentions to win not only the Southeastern Conference, but the National Championship. A conference team has won the past seven consecutive years, and nine of the 15 contests held since 1998.
Still, the Gamecocks had an exceptional year and this can only happen with extraordinary players. The 2012 version of the South Carolina team includes at least five players projected to go in this year's NFL draft. Here's a look at what each accomplished as a Gamecock and their prospects in the upcoming draft.
Defensive End Devin Taylor
The big defensive end out of Beaufort, SC has an excellent college career, jumping right into the fire after redshirting in 2008. At 6' 8" and nearly 270 pounds, Taylor possesses all the skills necessary to be a starting defensive end in the NFL.
Taylor proved to be one of the strongest tacklers on the team during his four years as a Gamecock, but NFL teams will be interested in teaching him to be a pass rusher, something he also did well in college. His tall, strong frame makes him a good prospect in a professional game of pass-oriented teams.
He could go as early as the second round, which is optimistic, or as late as the sixth. A fourth round selection would not be surprising.
Running Back Marcus Lattimore
We should all be pulling for Marcus Lattimore to do well in the NFL draft. Not only did he make himself eligible for the draft after his junior season, he also suffered a brutal knee injury just a few months ago.
Not only does Lattimore have an incredible story, his entry in the draft raised the level of running back talent this year, banged up knee and all. He's currently rehabilitating his knee with the help of an NFL training staff, which is a good sign.
Because of his knee injury, teams interested in Lattimore will most likely need to be willing to wait a year for a chance at having a franchise running back, which should bring a dozen or so different teams to the table. A second-round selection is highly likely.
Punt Returner / Wide Out Ace Sanders
Ace Sanders was a second-team All-America and was named the SEC's co-special teams player of the year. He also led the Gamecocks with 45 receptions for 531 yards and nine touchdowns. He was also fourth in the nation with a 15.13-yard punt return average and was named MVP of the Outback Bowl, a 33-28 South Carolina win over Michigan. After all this, he decided to leave after his junior year at USC. Was it the right call? Time will tell. He is likely a late round selection.
Outside Linebacker/Safety DeVonte Holloman
DeVonte Holloman is going to give NFL scouts some sleepless nights. The natural strong safety from Charlotte, NC is an excellent tackler, and an extremely gifted athlete, but he's not particularly fast. It's this lack of speed that is the greatest cause for concern among scouts. Nothing spells touchdown faster than a slow safety against a speedy receiver.
Despite his shortcomings, Holloman is an excellent football player and deserves a shot at going pro. Any team looking for a talented athlete to play on special teams will be looking at Holloman somewhere in the fifth or sixth round. He could easily find a home for many seasons to come.
Safety D.J. Swearinger
The Gamecocks' second leading tackler, with 80 tackles in his final season, is the kind of free safety NFL scouts want to get in front of coaching staffs adept at mentoring good talent into top talent. At 5' 11", Swearinger is a tad short, but his skills as an open-field tackler more than make up for this.
Swearinger is also a fearless player, which accounts for the way he plays the game. Teams looking for good special teams players look for courageous players, which describes him perfectly. He's projected as a mid-round selection—fourth or fifth—but has the potential of moving up the board. If a team is looking for best available talent, D.J. Swearinger will be among the top considerations.
Center T.J. Johnson
Because of his athleticism and experience, South Carolina center T.J. Johnson could be drafted in this year's NFL draft. However, at 6' 5" and 318 pounds, he's not a top prospect at the center position. He lacks the ability get any leverage against shorter, stronger defensive lineman, which is problematic in the NFL because of the need to be a pass-blocker.
If Johnson does not get drafted, and this is likely, he could still find himself invited to training camp for one or more teams.
This year's NFL draft will be April 25-27 and the Kansas City Chiefs have the first selection. Which South Carolina player do you think has the most potential?
Andy has lived in several different areas of the United States. He has worked as a freelance journalist for The Daily Herald before being hired by a South Carolina satellite TV provider. When he is not watching sports programs, Andy can be found writing sports articles for Athlete Anthem.