Jeffery's success extra sweet with hometown South Carolina team
South Carolina star Alshon Jeffery came close to playing for the other USC
First-round NFL draft prospect didn't start playing football until high school
Jeffery has shown other South Carolinians success can result from staying put
Alshon Jeffery could have done this anywhere. He knows that. Any coach in America could have taken Jeffery's oven-mitt hands and street brawler's body and put them to proper use. The South Carolina wide receiver could still be an All-America candidate, first-round draft prospect and red zone monster no matter where he'd gone to ply his trade.
It just never would have felt this good.
"It's so much more satisfying, being here," said Jeffery, a Saint Matthews, South Carolina native who originally committed to Southern Cal before choosing the Gamecocks. "If I had gone to the West Coast or somewhere else, I wouldn't have been able to do as much for the program. Here, we're trying to start something. We're just trying to keep kids in state and represent."
Last season, Jeffery represented his hometown well enough to become a Biletnikoff Award finalist and second-team AP All-American while helping to lead the Gamecocks to their first-ever SEC Championship Game. In doing so, he showed the potential his program possesses. The Gamecocks succeeded on the backs of several underclassmen -- Jeffery, cornerback and fellow sophomore Stephon Gilmore and freshman running back Marcus Lattimore -- all big-time recruits, all native South Carolinians.
"It's absolutely huge to be successful with this group of players," said Steve Spurrier, Jr., the Gamecocks' wide receivers coach. "All of those guys could have gone anywhere. For them to choose to come here means so much."
Jeffery was the first domino to fall, but even he grew up imagining himself playing for the other USC. "I grew up watching Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, those guys," said Jeffery. "That was my dream school. I thought, one day, I want to go there."
The warm feelings were reciprocated. Pete Carroll recruited Jeffery to Southern Cal and earned a verbal commitment, but once the prospect of becoming a Trojan became real, Jeffery began to think the reality could never match the dream. Distance was also an issue. Jeffery's father doesn't fly. His mother had little interest in trying to care for her son from afar.
And then there was a speech, delivered by coach Steve Spurrier over a meal, that told Jeffery what awaited him in Columbia.
"He looked at him, and he told him that football programs are like math equations," said Walter Wilson, Jeffery's high school coach. "He said it's one thing to go into an equation that already works, to be just another variable. It's another thing to be the independent variable, the variable that makes the equation come together.
"He said the equation at Southern Cal works every year. South Carolina needed that variable, and that could be Alshon."
At the beginning of his sophomore year in high school, little suggested Jeffery would become an SEC football program's independent variable. A kid committed to his first love of basketball, Jeffery decided to play football on a whim, eager to see how his size and athleticism transitioned from the hardwood to the football field.
"I just looked at the math," said Jeffery. "I knew at my height, I had to be an incredible player to make the NBA. But I knew I was the perfect size for a wide receiver. I thought I had a better shot with football."
Several weeks after the season started, Jeffery joined the team for practice. "You just had to watch the kid warm up, and you knew he could be a star," said Wilson. "He would catch bullet passes with one hand, like he had on a baseball glove or something." He practiced for the first time on a Monday, and he caught his first touchdown pass that Friday.
"Someday, I can make money playing football," Jeffery told Wilson. Wilson, however, knew Jeffery needed to improve his academic performance for his football career to get off the ground. Jeffery has an older brother -- "just as talented as Alshon," Wilson said -- whose academic issues prevented him from becoming a Division I player, and Wilson knew Jeffery needed help to avoid a similar fate.
Wilson made sure Jeffery came to school for extra instruction on teacher workdays and set up regular meetings with Jeffery's teachers, ensuring that he got extra attention to keep his grades up. "I told him, 'I can draw the map for you, but it's up to you to follow it,'" Wilson said.
Jeffery remained eligible, developed into a star and barely made the qualifying SAT score to play Division I ball. Once he arrived at South Carolina, Jeffery played like few freshmen ever have, physically overpowering cornerbacks in pursuit of the ball.
"He just has a dominant presence about him," Spurrier Jr. said. "He has natural coordination and skill, and when the ball is in the air, no one can get around him to make a play."
After bursting on the scene with a seven-catch, 138-yard, three-touchdown game against Kentucky, Jeffery became a freshman All-American. In the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, Jeffery made an improvement that would leave defensive backs across the SEC desperate and overwhelmed: He got faster.
"He was already so big and skilled, but he just had OK speed," said Spurrier Jr. "A lot of times you don't see guys get faster when they're in college, but he lifted weights more and spent more time conditioning and he went from being a 4.65 or 4.7 (40-yard dash speed) guy to maybe a 4.5 guy."
As Lattimore emerged as one of the country's top freshman running backs and Gilmore developed into one of the SEC's best all-purpose players, the Gamecocks capitalized on down years in Athens and Gainesville to win their division. With another blue chip in-state recruit, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, heading to Columbia this season, the Gamecocks will be picked by many to win the division again.
"We know we have great players," Jeffery said. "We have high expectations."
The Gamecocks will be getting another Jeffery this fall. Alshon's younger brother Shamier, also a wide receiver, will join the team. For Shamier, the decision to stay home and become a Gamecock was easy.
That trail had already been blazed.
Should Gregg Popovich be blamed for Game 6 loss?
How will momentum factor into Game 7 for Heat and Spurs?