How South Carolina landed Nyckoles Harbor commitment

Nyckoles Harbor signed with South Carolina on Wednesday.

Nyckoles Harbor signed with South Carolina on Wednesday.

The State

As nightfall crept in, Nyckoles Harbor paced inside his family’s home.

He stepped out of his bedroom, took a few steps and worked his way toward his sleeping parents. Nervousness permeated the five-star recruit’s 6-foot-5, 230-pound chiseled frame. The recruiting process, the relationships he’d built, the fact he had to tell four schools “no” — all of it created knots in his chest.

Azuka Harbor, Nyckoles’ father and a former professional soccer player, could see the borderline despair on his son’s face. The smiling, effervescent Nyckoles he knew wasn’t there, replaced instead with some level of dread and stress.

“Son, what’s wrong?” Azuka queried.

“Uhhh, nothing,” Nyckoles retorted, retreating to his room before the lights flickered on again and the cycle repeated itself.

Perched behind a lectern in the George H. Leftwich Gymnasium at Archbishop Carroll on Wednesday afternoon, the pressure that forced Nyckoles Harbor into a pair of sleepless nights was replaced with an ear-to-ear grin and a roar from the nearly 1,000 students littering the bleachers to celebrate his decision to sign with South Carolina.

In a recruiting saga that included more lead changes than a Kentucky Derby, Harbor settled on Shane Beamer’s squad over finalists Maryland, Michigan, Miami and Oregon. It marked the biggest recruiting win to date for the Gamecocks’ third-year head coach. It’s also a paradigm-shifting pledge from a player who spurned college football blue bloods to pick a program that, of late, can do no wrong on the recruiting trail.

“I worked through (the process) just by going through it,” a noticeably relieved Harbor told The State. “I had to go through it. I’m happy with my decision.”

Harbor’s recruiting process itself has been topsy-turvy. Little tangible information has leaked during his forays with each of his finalists in recent months. That’s come, as much as anything, due to his family’s desire to stay tight-lipped with his recruiting process.

Azuka quipped after the signing ceremony a coworker of his at NASA from South Carolina tried desperately to pry any information about Nyckoles’ decision they could. Ever the wiser, Azuka told them to wait a minute and that he’d return. He didn’t, ducking out of work without so much as a whisper of what his son had decided.

“He’s going crazy,” Azuka told The State, smirking. “He can’t wait for me to come to work tomorrow.”

That Harbor landed with South Carolina is a coup. He’s the biggest high school prospect, by far, to sign with the Gamecocks since Beamer took over in December 2020 and the first five-star recruit in that span. He’s technically the fifth-highest-rated prospect to pick the Gamecocks since 2010, behind only Jadeveon Clowney, Marcus Lattimore, Jordan Burch and Zacch Pickens.

The USC staff had felt confident heading into Wednesday, despite rumors to the contrary. The ground built in relationships with Beamer — who recruited Harbor as a freshman during his time as an assistant on Lincoln Riley’s staff at Oklahoma — and assistant coaches Sterling Lucas and Jody Wright was firm.

That trio, along with offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and receivers coach Justin Stepp, even zipped out to Lubbock, Texas, to watch Harbor run track in recent weeks as a show of interest and support. Azuka noted that gesture went far with his son. Nyckoles echoed similar sentiments.

Still, overtures from other schools continued. Oregon received a last-minute official visit this past weekend. The Ducks reportedly pieced together a massive marketing pitch that included Nike founder and mega-booster Phil Knight. That led to fervent rumors of a large-scale NIL deal — the kinds of deals that aren’t actually verifiable in the current climate but create message board chaos nonetheless.

Amid the madness, Beamer, too, slept restlessly. He revealed in his signing day press conference that he read a message from Harbor at 2:57 a.m. Wednesday that didn’t exactly inspire confidence in the Gamecocks’ chances at landing the generational five-star athlete.

“Obviously, I didn’t sleep after that,” Beamer said, laughing. “I was laying in bed trying to figure out what’s going on.”

Flip-flopping rumors aside, Harbor slipped on a South Carolina ballcap at 1:09 p.m. Wednesday. His family and coaches, too, joined the fun. Harbor’s track coach, Rafiu Bakare, even donned a black, Steve Spurrier-style golf visor.

Harbor told reporters the incessant contact in the last stages of the process forced his mom to have the phone company disable his iPhone from receiving phone calls. The only way folks could reach him was through FaceTime.

As he answered questions from one media member, the latest DMV (D.C.-Maryland-Virginia) product to pledge to South Carolina in the 2023 cycle looked at his phone. Four-star USC signee Oluwatosin “Tree” Babalade, a Maryland product, was FaceTiming Harbor to celebrate his pledge.

“I mean, you’ve seen him today,” Bakare said. “That kind of smile and jovial ability to draw you in and get to know you — that’s who he is. That’s how he walks around.”

What South Carolina is getting in Harbor is exceptionally rare. He’s the kind of recruit who can change a program’s perception in the national consciousness. His offer list included everyone. He had four or five teams legitimately in the mix for his services down to the wire.

He chose the Gamecocks.

The plan, for now, is to play more receiver than tight end or defensive end, Harbor told The State following his decision — and he’s more than capable of sticking at all three positions. How all that shakes out remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Beamer, Harbor and the rest of those involved in landing the exceptional athlete in Columbia can rest easy. Everyone deserves — and needs — a good night’s sleep.

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Ben Portnoy is The State’s South Carolina Gamecocks football beat writer. He’s a five-time Associated Press Sports Editors award honoree and has earned recognition from the Mississippi Press Association and the National Sports Media Association. Portnoy previously covered Mississippi State for the Columbus Commercial Dispatch and Indiana football for the Journal Gazette in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

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