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2008 South Carolina Preview - Defense
South Carolina CB Captain Munnerlyn
South Carolina CB Captain Munnerlyn
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted May 16, 2008


CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - South Carolina Gamecock Defense

South Carolina Gamecocks

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN South Carolina Preview | 2008 South Carolina Offense
- 2008 South Carolina Defense | 2008 South Carolina Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN South Carolina Preview | 2006 CFN South Carolina Preview 

What you need to know:
A major disappointment last year thanks to a slew of injury problems, the D is loaded and could be among the best in the SEC if everyone can stay on the field. The biggest boost is the return of LB Jasper Brinkley after suffering a knee injury, while the linebacking corps will undergo a bit of a change with end Eric Norwood swapping spots with LB Cliff Matthews. There's plenty of star power with Brinkley, Norwood, CB Captain Munnerlyn, SS Emanuel Cook, and DT Ladi Ajiboye all certain to earn all-star honors, and now someone has to stop the run. USC finished first in the SEC in pass defense, but that's partly because everyone pounded the ball. That should change with massive size in the front seven and most of the key parts healthy again.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Emanuel Cook, 92
Sacks: Eric Norwood, 6
Interceptions: Emanuel Cook, Captain Munnerlyn, 3

Star of the defense: Senior LB Jasper Brinkley
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DE Jordin Lindsey
Unsung star on the rise: Freshman CB Akeem Auguste
Best pro prospect: Brinkley
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Brinkley, 2) CB Captain Munnerlyn, 3) SS Emanuel Cook
Strength of the defense: Experience, back seven
Weakness of the defense:
Proven run defense from the front four, health

Defensive Line

Projected Starters
:
Looking to break out and star is 6-1, 300-pound sophomore Ladi Ajiboye at tackle after starting for most of last year making 39 tackles with three sacks. Extremely quick and strong at getting into the backfield, he has the athleticism and the tools to go along with the size, and while he was inconsistent last year, the talent is there to be a superstar and a good NFL prospect.

Next to Ajiboye will likely be 6-1, 292-pound junior Nathan Pepper, but there will be a steady rotation and a battle for the starting job. Pepper saw time inside and out stepping in at end at times to go along with his work at tackle, before suffering a knee injury in the third game of the year. He finished with five tackles and an interception in his limited time, and now he needs to return to his old athletic form in a hurry or he'll be out of a spot.

With Eric Norwood moving to end, Cliff Matthews will move back to end after making 26 tackles as an outside linebacker. The 6-4, 250-pound sophomore is a good pass rusher and has the explosiveness off the line to bring consistent pressure, and while he's good at stopping the run, he needs to hit the quarterback.

While Matthews is a big-time athlete, 6-3, 261-pound senior Jordin Lindsey is a plugger. More like a linebacker playing end, he's always working and he's a decent all-around lineman, making 37 tackles and a sack two years ago, he missed all of last year with academic issues.

Projected Top Reserves: How healthy is Marque Hall? Considered to be one of the top lineman recruits the program had ever landed, the 6-3, 314-pound senior has had health problems with a torn ACL in 2006, and he was never quite right last year making 22 tackles with a sack and five quarterback hurries. He's a big run stopper who has the potential to start, but he needs to be back to form.

Pushing Pepper hard for a tackle spot, and possibly an opening day starter, will be 6-2, 290-pound senior Jonathan Williams, one of the best tackles in spring ball. The former JUCO transfer had a decent first year making 13 tackles with a sack. While he's not special, he's a strong option who should do far more.

Sophomore Travian Robertson is listed at end, but the 6-4, listed-at-270-pounder (who's likely much bigger in reality), might end up at tackle. He made seven tackles last season and was great all off-season. He'll find time somewhere up front.

6-7, 290-pound sophomore Clifton Geathers is another tackle-sized end who'll work behind Lindsey. He got bigger over the last year, but he hasn't lost any quickness and is expected to grow into a dangerous all-around playmaker after coming up with two tackles in a reserve role.

On the way is star JUCO transfer Jarriel King, a 6-7, 285-pounder who could be moved to the offensive side if needed. He'll start out at end but will likely end up at tackle before the season is over. Originally a Gamecock in 2005, he didn't get his grades up and ended up shining for Georgia Military College.

Watch Out For ... Ajiboye. He was good last year in his first season on the inside, and now he's about to explode. He has the size, the quickness, and the skills to be a special inside force to revolve an entire defensive line around.
Strength
:
Size and potential. The Gamecocks loaded up over the last few recruiting classes with good linemen, and while they haven't all panned out for a variety of reasons, there's talent up front. Size-wise, few in the SEC are bigger with the potential for four tackle-sized players to man the front wall and any time.
Weakness
:
Production. Injuries and suspensions were a big part of the problem, but even with the problems, the line was too big and too strong to be as bad as it was against the run. This group got its butt kicked way too often.
Outlook: After USC allowed 147 rushing yards per game in 2007, things got even worse allowing 209 yards per game while struggling to generate any consistent pressure. That should change with the expected emergence of sophomores Ajiboye and Matthews, and with good depth and huge size, the overall production should be far better. If this isn't the most improved lines in the SEC, it'll be second.
Rating: 7


Linebackers


Projected Starters
:
the bad news was that senior Jasper Brinkley missed almost all of last year with a bad knee injury, making 21 tackles, two interceptions and a tackle for loss in four games. The good news is that he's back after being given a year of eligibility. Listed at 6-2 and 275 pounds, although he's working on getting a bit lighter, he's one of the nation's best middle linebackers with the ability to get into the backfield on a regular basis and the speed to be all over the field. The former star JUCO transfer missed all of spring ball, but he's expected to be back and ready to roll by the start of the season. He might not be quite the same player, but he'll still be one of the SEC's best if he's at 80%.

In one of the big moves of the spring, 6-1, 270-pound junior end Eric Norwood will move to weakside linebacker to allow Cliff Matthews to move to end. Norwood finished second on the team with 69 tackles with six sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss, nine quarterback hurries and three fumbles, and now he's expected to be even better with more room to move. Now the key is to get smaller. Hardly out of shape, he's a bit bulky for the position. The goal is to get down about 15-20 pounds so he can be even quicker.

Working on the strongside will be Gerrod Sinclair, a 6-0, 234-pound junior who has the speed and upside to come up with a breakout year. Rarely healthy, he hasn't been able to show what he could do on a regular basis making just 15 tackles last year. With Brinkley and Norwood to work next to, Sinclair should shine.

Projected Top Reserves: Working behind Brinkley in the middle will be Rodney Paulk, a very active, lighter option. The 6-0, 226-pound junior made plays all over the field as an outside linebacker last season making 64 tackles with a sack and 4.5 tackles for loss, and while he's not the most talented of the linebackers, he's always doing something to make a play.

5-11, 228-pound senior Marvin Sapp is a weakside linebacker thrown into the middle after Brinkley got hurt, and he came up with 61 tackles and a tackle for loss. Very fast and with a good career as a fill-in, he'll be used across the corps when healthy. He suffered a broken ankle before the season last year, and this year he also missed spring ball hurt.

Bringing more speed to the strongside is Antonio Allen, a 6-2, 190-pound true freshman who came to USC as a strong safety but will work at linebacker early on. A great hitter who doesn't miss tackles, he'll be an interesting prospect to keep an eye on with good athleticism and nice pop.

Watch Out For ... a HUGE jump in production. This was supposed to be one of the team's strengths until injuries hit, but with Norwood moving to outside linebacker and Brinkley back, things will only get better.
Strength
:
Size. There's too much of it as Brinkley and Norwood try to slim down, but even if they do drop the pounds they'll still check in around 260 when all is said and done. Sinclair is a decent-sized 234.
Weakness
:
Pass defense. It didn't matter much last year considering the Gamecocks led the SEC in pass defense, but the linebackers are mostly run stoppers going into this year. It's not that they can't run, it's that they're not the best in pass coverage.
Outlook: This will certainly be an interesting mix of talents. If Brinkley is close to being Brinkley again, the linebacking corps automatically becomes one of the SEC's best. Norwood has to prove he can handle the move to linebacker, a position he hasn't played since high school, while Sinclair could be a breakout performer. The backups are solid, but the hope is that they're not needed like they were last year. Staying healthy is a must.
Rating: 8


Defensive Backs


Projected Starters
:
The Gamecocks are deep at corner led by 5-9, 185-pound junior Captain Munnerlyn. While he missed spring ball thanks to a foot problem, he'll be back and ready to roll after making 47 tackles with three interceptions and four broken up passes in an all-star season. He's not that big, but he's a great hitter with 4.3 speed. He's a true No. 1 cover corner.

Working on the other side will be Carlos Thomas, a 5-11, 197-pound senior who started out his career as a receiver. He made 17 tackles and broke up six passes, and while he has been inconsistent and will be pushed hard for a starting spot, he's one of the team's fastest players with the type of skills that translate well to the NFL combine.

Last year at this time, junior Emanuel Cook was in a battle for a starting job. All he did was lead the team with 92 tackles with four sacks, eight tackles for loss, three interceptions and five broken up passes in just 11 games at the rover, or strong safety. Staying healthy is an issue for the big hitter, having the most problems with a knee injury, but he's a sure tackler and an all-star to work the secondary around.

Also back is junior Darian Stewart at free safety. The 5-11, 218-pounder was third on the team with 68 tackles and two interceptions with seven tackles for loss. He showed this spring that he's far more familiar with the position and played faster and smarter. The top athlete should earn all-star honors if he continues to improve.

Projected Top Reserves: Ready to take over a starting corner role sooner than later is true freshman Akeem Auguste, a confident 5-9, 179-pound playmaker who was one of the biggest stars of spring ball. A true cover-corner who made plays all off-season, he'll work behind Thomas at one spot, but will see plenty of time somewhere in the secondary mix.

5-11, 197-pound senior Stoney Woodson is a nice all-around veteran to have in reserve. While he'll start out at corner, he can play either safety spot. More suited to free safety thanks to his excellent speed and questionable tackling ability, he'll see time as a nickel back after making 26 tackles with an interception and four broken up passes. He can be a starter without a problem.

6-2, 200-pound redshirt freshman Mark Barnes was a high school defensive back, tried his hand at receiver in practices last year, and now will be one of the best young combinations of speed and size of any SEC strong safety. He's a true defensive back with nice hitting ability and a good feel for the play when the ball is in the air.

Watch Out For ... Auguste. The corners are already set with Munnerlyn and Thomas, but the precocious true freshman might find a way to shoehorn himself in the mix. He's too good to keep off the field.
Strength
:
Experience and stats. This was the SEC's No. 1 pass defense last year and everyone comes back. Not only is everyone returning, but with the emergence of Auguste and Barnes, things are even better.
Weakness
:
Overrated stats and health. Yeah, USC was No. 1 in the SEC, and fourth in the nation, against the pass, but that's partly because everyone ran the ball on the Gamecocks. Tim Tebow was able to throw without a problem, and Matthew Stafford, Andre Woodson, Cullen Harper and Erik Ainge all threw for over 200 yards. Staying healthy is a must, and that's not a given considering the injury issues across the board from Munnerlyn's foot to Cook's knee to Barnes' shoulder.
Outlook: As long as everyone stays healthy, this will be one of the nation's most productive secondaries. It's the real deal with Munnerlyn, Thomas, and Cook all good enough to see time in an NFL camp in the near future, while the reserves are promising with Auguste and Barnes future stars of the SEC. More interceptions would be nice, after coming up with just 14 last year as a team, but they should come.
Rating: 9

Special Teams

Projected Starters
:
Senior Ryan Succop is one of the nation's best placekickers hitting 27 of 37 field goals over the last two years, with one miss hitting the upright and his four misses last year all coming from behind 40 yards. He's a big-legged all-star who hit a 55-yard bomb two years ago, and he also worked as the team's punter averaging 41.6 yards per kick while putting 15 inside the 20. Sophomore Spencer Lanning could help out a bit on the punting duties.

CB Captain Munnerlyn is a strong punt returner averaging a nice 9.2 yards per try, while FS Chris Culliver averaged 23.8 yards per kickoff return.

Watch Out For ... fewer blocked kicks. Three punts were blocked last year, and new special teams coach Ray Rychleski was brought in to specifically stop those from happening.
Strength
:
Succop and the return game. He's one of the nation's most reliable mid-range kickers, while the return game is rock-solid. It's not special, but it's good.
Weakness
:
Kickoff coverage. The Gamecocks averaged 22.4 yards per kickoff return, but they allowed 23.9 yards per try.
Outlook: The special teams were good last year, and they could be great with a little more pop in the punting game and a bit more production on returns. Succop will be in the hunt for the Lou Groza Award if he can hit a few more deep kicks, while he should split some time as the punter. Munnerlyn and Culliver are good returners.
Rating: 8