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December 2, 2010

Class of '07 Riding To a Fitting End




They came together four years ago, 31 young men who represented what Steve Spurrier thought he could have -- a championship team at South Carolina. After basically taking what he could get during his first two years with the Gamecocks, Spurrier recruited a ballyhooed group in 2007 that was ranked in the nation's top seven by online services, including a lofty No. 4 rating by ESPN.

"We're excited about all of them," Spurrier said then. "We're going to allow guys to earn their way as they go."

The class featured 14 four-star recruits and one five-star (Chris Culliver). It was ranked as having one of the best group of wide-receiver prospects in the country, if not the best. Culliver was one of five Top 100 players -- Cliff Matthews, Travian Robertson, Quintin Richardson and Stephen Garcia were the others -- and Spurrier signed 13 players from talent-rich Florida, along with four of the top eight players from South Carolina.

Yet no matter from where they came, all preached the same when discussing their college choice -- we want to do something that's never been done before.

"I remember coach Spurrier when he came to my high school, and told me he wanted me to come and help try to get an SEC title for the University of South Carolina," Ladi Ajiboye said on Monday. "Dreams do come true. We're witness of that."

Four years after that class first stepped on campus, it will try to take that final step it spoke of so reverently. On Saturday, USC makes its first appearance in the SEC Championship Game.

"We all guaranteed an SEC championship, and we've got the chance right now," Akeem Auguste said. "We're going to make the best of our situation, I know we are."

CLASS OF 2007

Ladi Ajiboye
Playing senior season and has started 43 of 47 career games. Has 38 tackles, five for loss, and two sacks this season.

Antonio Allen
Playing junior season after enrolling in 2008 due to prep school attendance. Has started 17 of 26 career games. Has 56 tackles, 9.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks and one interception returned for a touchdown this season.

Akeem Auguste
Playing junior season after enrolling in 2008 due to prep school attendance. Has started 17 of 33 career games. Has 45 tackles, 3.5 for loss, one sack and one forced fumble this season.

Eric Baker
Redshirting junior season after tearing left ACL a year ago. Has two seasons of eligibility remaining after 2010, after enrolling at USC in 2008 due to prep school attendance. Has rushed for 204 yards on 48 carries while catching 11 passes for 118 yards in 17 career games.

Jason Barnes
Playing junior season after receiving a medical redshirt in 2007. Has started 17 of 41 career games and has caught five passes for 54 yards this season.

Mark Barnes
Decided to leave in fall 2008 after receiving sparse playing time, electing to transfer to Florida A&M. He never got there, and was reportedly thinking of trying to get back on the Gamecocks' team in 2009. Nothing ever came of it.

Michael Bowman
Never admitted to USC despite having the necessary criteria under NCAA Clearinghouse rules. Along with Arkee Smith, Bowman's denial caused Spurrier to threaten to quit if the admissions process wasn't admitted. It later was. Bowman went to East Carolina and is playing his third season.

Matt Clements
Decided to leave in January of 2010 after receiving sparse playing time. Was thought to be going to Arizona but is not listed on the Wildcats' roster.

Chris Culliver
Was playing senior season until a torn pectoral muscle ended his career. Had started 31 of 32 career games. Had 34 tackles, 2.5 for loss, one sack and one forced fumble, plus 12 kickoff returns for 261 yards, this season.

Patrick DiMarco
Playing senior season and has started 24 of 50 career games. Has caught 13 passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns this season.

Larry Freeman
Rated as a wide receiver who compared to Sidney Rice, Freeman was one of the most natural athletes on the team but could never find a niche. Had middling stats for two years, on offense and defense, and graduated in 2008.

Stephen Garcia
Playing junior season after redshirting in 2007 and has started 28 of 33 career games. Has completed 189 of 287 passes for 2,646 yards and 18 touchdowns with nine interceptions this season, also rushing 90 times for 190 yards and six touchdowns.

Clifton Geathers
Left after the 2009 season for early entry into the NFL, where he is currently on his third team in a year. An offensive lineman in high school, Geathers switched to defensive line and recorded 41 tackles, 8.5 for loss and 3.5 sacks last season.

Joe Hills
Left the team in fall 2009 after becoming upset when asked to move to defense. Played sparingly in two seasons. Transferred to Tennessee State.

Melvin Ingram
Playing junior season after redshirting in 2008 and has started two of 36 career games. Has 23 tackles, nine for loss, eight sacks and a forced fumble this season.

Dion LeCorn
Playing senior season and has started nine of 40 career games. Rampant injuries and switches from offense to defense have limited him, but he plays on special teams and has contributed in 11 games. Has one tackle this season.

Brian Maddox
Playing senior season and has started seven of 42 career games. Has 61 carries for 333 yards and two touchdowns, with eight catches for 51 yards, this season.

Cliff Matthews
Playing senior season and has started 45 of 49 career games. Has 31 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles this season.

Byron McKnight
Playing junior season after redshirting in 2007 and has played in 35 career games. Has one tackle and one fumble returned for a touchdown this season.

Donte'e Nicholls
Dismissed from team in 2008 for repeated violations of team rules. Transferred to Tennessee State.

Kyle Nunn
Playing junior season after redshirting in 2007 and has started 14 of 31 career games. Has earned the starting left tackle position this season.

Sam Pope
Transferred to Hampton in 2007 in search of more playing time.

Quintin Richardson
Transferred to Hampton in fall 2010 to play his senior season. Limited by multiple injuries during his USC career, Richardson would not have played in 2010 anyway after suffering a torn pectoral.

Travian Robertson
Playing junior season after receiving a medical redshirt in 2009 and has started 15 of 41 career games. Has 36 tackles, 10 for loss, four sacks and two recovered fumbles this season.

Weslye Saunders
Dismissed from team in fall 2010 after being linked to an NCAA investigation and being suspended from the team since August. Remains enrolled at USC.

Arkee Smith
Never admitted to USC, along with Bowman. Went to Bethune-Cookman and is playing his senior season.

Addison Williams
Took a medical to end his football career and is helping the team as a student assistant coach this season while finishing his degree. Started one of 26 career games.

Jamire Williams
Decided to leave in fall 2008 after receiving sparse playing time. Transferred to Alabama State.

Jonathan Williams
Played sparingly for two years and graduated in 2008.

Mat Williams
Left USC in summer of 2007 after realizing football wasn't for him.

Alonzo Winfield
Playing his junior season after redshirting in 2007 and has started three of 31 career games. Has five tackles this season.

There were a few that departed, and a few that didn't pan out. It happens in every class, but at USC, it seemed to be more evidence that perhaps a title just wasn't in the cards.

"It's been a long process for us," Travian Robertson said. "We lost a few players in that class. We always stuck together and tried to figure out what we could do to change the program."

The ones that stayed have been the foundation for this season's 2010 SEC East championship, although it wasn't easy to get there.

HARD ROAD

That first year seemed to be the immediate answer. USC leaped to a 6-1 start and was ranked sixth in the country, putting it into immediate contention for the SEC. It devolved into five straight losses and no bowl game, teaching the newcomers of the class that with the Gamecocks, nothing was ever going to be as easy as it looked.

The next two seasons, as some members of the class arrived after prep-school stints and some began to depart, were about the same. USC was 7-6 in consecutive years, pulling off some high-profile wins (Ole Miss, Tennessee, Clemson) but falling short in many of the others, especially the bowl games. The Gamecocks were thrashed in 2008 and 2009 during the postseason, leaving many of that 2007 class to declare a new day was coming.

"I probably lost two games my whole high school career," Auguste said. "I wasn't used to coming in and losing more than one game, more than two games. I couldn't take it, and I know a lot of guys couldn't take it either."

"I don't like losing; nobody likes losing on this team," Ajiboye said. "This past summer, we really came together in workouts and really talked it over. Everybody was on the same page. I felt something different."

As Spurrier said before the season, he witnessed more chemistry in the 2010 team. There was more camaraderie, no selfishness; "These guys really like each other," he said.

It showed early, when USC won its first three games, including the early-season high-water mark of Georgia. A narrow loss at Auburn became a shocking win over then-No. 1 Alabama, a game where USC dominated the Crimson Tide throughout.

That became a nasty loss at Kentucky, the Gamecocks' first in 11 years. But there was no head-hanging, the team leaders encouraging instead of screaming or giving up. It became a sparkling end-of-season stretch, USC winning five of its last six games in situations where almost every previous Gamecock team had folded.

"All of us in that 2007 class came in here knowing the potential that South Carolina had," Patrick DiMarco said. "Building a program and everything like that. Coach Spurrier always said our goal was to win an SEC championship."

One of those wins was another dominant performance, a 36-14 whipping of Florida that clinched a piece of the goal. After 18 seasons of being not much more than a pesky kid brother, USC was going to the SEC Championship Game in the 19th.

"It's going to be great to be a part of the team that has a chance to win the whole SEC," Kyle Nunn said. "Our '07 class is finally getting in and it's good to see all the guys I came in with on the field."

Part of the goal was clinched, but immediately after Florida the other piece became that much more important. The Gamecocks had come this far -- why not take another step?

USC has that opportunity on Saturday. The season has been magical in so many ways thus far, but for the Gamecocks to finally achieve what they have rarely been close to would be a fitting end.

The Class of 2007 recognizes that for most of them, the chance will only come once. They will always be viewed as the foundation, but they want more.

"I've been here four years and we haven't quite got over that hump," Matthews said. "But we're over that hump now, so we've just got to take advantage of it. The opportunity for us to win the SEC is there, so all we got to do is come ready to play and play our game.

"We knew this day was coming. It was just a matter of time."

USC-Clemson Game Week sponsored by Mallard Orchard Hunt Club

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