April 4, 2008

Fork Union Trio Adjusts To Life In The SEC

5 A.M. marching drills.

No girls or cell phones allowed.

A rigorous schedule of lifting, studying and sometimes three games within a week.

And two of those might be on the road.

Not to mention the pressures of meeting NCAA academic eligibility by finding the time to manage their classwork and increase their standardize testing scores.

For a semester, three current South Carolina players grew accustomed to this grueling schedule.

When Florida natives Eric Baker, Akeem Auguste, and Antonio Allen first arrived in the rural southern Virginia confines of Fort Union Military Academy, they hit the ground running.

But if they wanted to play college football at USC, they had little choice.

The demanding military structure at Fort Union calls for marching in the early morning, grabbing a quick breakfast if you're lucky, then a grueling six hours of class.

Next, they hit the football practice fields after class lets out at 2 p.m. Before they knew it, the clock read 7 p.m. and they hadn't even hit the books yet.

Don't forget - lights out at ten.

"It was marching in the morning, marching in the afternoon, marching at night," Auguste said. "It was march, march, march, march."

Before they could achieve the glory of playing football in the SEC on Saturday afternoons in the fall before crowds larger than most towns, they had to push themselves harder than most of their high school teammates.

Auguste totaled 10 interceptions and 110 tackles during his last two seasons at Chaminade-Madonna High School in Hollywood, Florida. Thanks in part to his efforts the Lions locked up a top 25 national ranking in 2006 for the 2A school and were district runners up in 2007.

While witnessing his former high school teammates playing immediately at programs like Florida Atlantic, UCF and even BCS schools like West Virginia and Notre Dame, Auguste had to take a tougher road to get on campus.

That didn't slow down the guy with 4.5 speed.

"I knew I was supposed to be there, that's the place God put me," Auguste declared. "All I want to do is play football. That's it. That's my life.

Despite the amount of faith and patience Auguste demonstrated while at Fort Union, support from two other Gamecock commits going through the same process helped considerably.

Eric Baker and Antonio Allen both came to Virginia along with Auguste in order to meet NCAA academic eligibility standards. Auguste credits them for getting him through.

"I probably wouldn't do it by myself," Auguste said. "They were in the same situation I was in and that made me feel even better. There were more people (at Fort Union) fighting and trying to make it. We were basically the only ones signed at the school. So everybody was looking up to us."

If anybody knows about preparing prep school players for the major college level, it's Fort Union head coach John Shuman, who has coached more than 50 players to the NFL. Shuman watched over the Carolina trio just as he watched over stars like Gaines Adams.

"I prove to coaches that I'll push (the players) and get everything out of them," Shuman said. "We pushed (Allen, Auguste, and Baker) hard and got the results we wanted. They all had the talent, but we just wanted to catch their mind up with that talent."

Baker and Auguste perfrmed in accordance with Shuman's philosophy of 'if you're good then you'll play both ways.' Auguste caught 15 passes and grabbed three touchdowns while Baker played both as a running back and linebacker last season for 9-2 Fort Union.

Most SEC schools are reluctant to take the risk of handing a scholarship to an athlete who takes a semester to improve their grades in a military structure.

But USC's assistant coach Brad Lawing, who has close ties to Shuman, sent the trio to Virginia with clear marks to hit. The result was beneficial for everyone involved.

"They were all excited to be at Fort Union," Shuman said. "USC's coaching staff did a good job of telling them where they needed to be. Allen was down to the wire, and was thinking of staying another semester. But he studied hard, went to the board and hit the SAT score he needed."

While the trio maanged to climb a large mountain to enroll at USC for the spring semester, the challenges now multiply as they rise up the USC depth chart.

Allen starred at Trinity Catholic High School in Ocala, Fla. along side current teammate Dion Lecorn. While Lecorn flourished last season as a wide receiver, Allen was stuck at Fort Union.

After just two spring practices, Allen witnessed a pair of USC wide receivers buries on the depth chart move over to the defensive secondary.

Things have been competitive for Baker also. The Jacksonville native looks at the running backs roster and sees a three-year starter currently sitting 18th all-time on the Gamecocks career rushing list.

Aside from Mike Davis, there's a pair of backs with two years playing experience under their belts and a sophomore who rushed for nearly 2,000 yards in his final year at T.L. Hannah High School.

Baker led the State of Florida with 1,703 yards during his senior season at Edward White High School in 2006. He's now got something to prove. His running backs coach, Robert Gillespie, understands Baker is new to the system but notices the discipline gives him a surprise edge.

Although Baker may see limited action in 2008, there's no doubt the four-star back has the makings of a great Gamecock career due to Fort Union.

"It made me better academically and a better player on the football field," Baker declared. "It made me push myself harder. It was a good learning experience. I'm coming along with the plays now, I just need to work harder in pass protection."

While Allen, Auguste, and Baker now tell their stories to the media with a laugh and a smile, thouigh it's not known what the future holds for the trio.

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