The NFL Draft begins Thursday night in New York. By the time it finishes late Saturday, most analysts believe South Carolina will have sent a near-record group to the NFL for the second consecutive year.
Six Gamecocks are widely expected to be taken in the draft’s seven rounds, which will be broadcast by ESPN on Thursday and Friday evening and throughout the day Saturday. If that number becomes reality, it will be the third-best draft class in school history and match the half dozen who were selected in last year’s draft.
The 1954 draft remains the most Gamecock-stacked in history, with nine former South Carolina players being selected. Seven Gamecocks were taken in the 2009 draft, and six were picked in 2012 and 1988.
Safety D.J. Swearinger, defensive end Devin Taylor, wide receiver Ace Sanders, linebacker DeVonte Holloman, running back Marcus Lattimore and center T.J. Johnson are expected to picked in the draft.
Cornerback Akeem Auguste, linebacker Reginald Bowens, tight end Justice Cunningham, defensive end Aldrick Fordham, fullback Qua Gilchrist, linebacker Damario Jeffery, defensive tackle Byron Jerideau, running back Kenny Miles, wide receiver D.L. Moore, linebacker Quin Smith, linebacker Shaq Wilsona and place-kicker Adam Yates also worked out at South Carolina’s pro day last month in hopes of impressing scouts and earning either a late spot in the draft or a free agent contract when the draft is complete.
While Swearinger is expected to be the first South Carolina product selected, there is debate about where the other Gamecocks will land.
NFL.com draft analyst Josh Norris projects Taylor, Sanders and Holloman will be selected before Lattimore, while Drafttek.com believes Lattimore will be the second South Carolina athlete player taken. Both projections have Lattimore being selected in the fourth round.
“A guy I really like is Holloman,” Norris said. “To me, he fits as a strongside linebacker. He’s just so consistent. He gets the edge, he knifes through blocks, he can tackle in space. I think there is a chance he could start early in his career.”
The widest range of opinion appears to be about Sanders, who Norris projects as a fourth round pick but Drafttek.com projects in the seventh round. Sanders caught 45 passes for 531 yards and was named co-SEC special teams player of the year after returning 28 punts for 429 yards and two touchdowns.
“He didn’t run as well as people thought,” ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. said. “You think about where he can be with his size situation. At 5-foot-7, 174, I think he normally would run in the 4.4s. He plays to that level. He’s tremendously quick and explosive. So with the returnability he could be a day three guy who makes the team and contributes.”
Sanders could be a middle round backup plan for a team that really likes West Virginia speedster Tavon Austin but doesn’t select high enough to land Austin, Norris believes.
“A team that wants that slot receiver who can make things happen in space on quick screens, Ace Sanders can do that,” Norris said. “He doesn’t have the long speed and I don’t think he can be in as many packages (as Austin), but he can do similar things.”
Of the Gamecocks on the outside looking of the draft projections and looking in, Norris believes Cunningham has the best chance of being selected.
“He’s a willing blocker, and he showed he could go up and get it (passes) in tight coverage,” Norris said. “Obviously, his speed is a question and this is a really good tight end class and that doesn’t help him.”