2009 South Carolina Preview - Defense
USC Safeties Darian Stewart & Chris Culliver
USC Safeties Darian Stewart & Chris Culliver
Posted Jun 10, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - South Carolina Gamecock Defense

South Carolina Gamecocks

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 CFN South Carolina Preview | 2009 South Carolina Offense
- 2009 South Carolina Defense | 2009 South Carolina Depth Chart
- 2008 USC Preview | 2007 USC Preview | 2006 USC Preview

What you need to know: The defense finished 13th in the nation and second against the pass, but it struggled when it had to face a real, live offense. Even so, it was a strong D that should be even better on the line with great size and a fantastic group of tackles to work around. In the 4-2-5 alignment, the Gamecocks have two stars to count on in Eric Norwood and Rodney Paulk. Norwood has SEC Defensive Player of the Year potential and will be the team's best pass rusher. The secondary loses the corners and has to pray for true freshman Stephon Gilmore to be ready for primetime. The safeties should be able to pick up the slack with Darian Stewart moving over from the hybrid Spur position to strong safety and Chris Culliver a sure-thing all-star at free safety

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Eric Norwood, 75
Sacks: Eric Norwood, 9
Interceptions: Chris Culliver, 3

Star of the defense: Senior LB Eric Norwood
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore CB Akeem Auguste
Unsung star on the rise: Junior DE Clifton Geathers
Best pro prospect: Norwood
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Norwood, 2) SS Darian Stewart, 3) DT Nathan Pepper
Strength of the defense: Safety, The Front Six
Weakness of the defense: Cornerback, Run D vs. Top Teams

Defensive Linemen

Projected Starters
There's only one starting spot needing to be filled on the front four, at least at the moment, but junior Clifton Geathers could be an upgrade over Jordan Lindsey. At 6-8 and 281 pounds, Geathers is a massive, tackle-like defender who'd be better as a 3-4 end than as a pass rushing 4-3 outside defender, but he's strong against the run making 29 tackles with 2.5 sacks. With more work and as a full-time starter, he's expected to grow into a special player considering his freakish combination of skills.

Back on the other side will be Cliff Matthews, a former tight end who started every game at one end making 32 tackles with three sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. He originally started out his career on the USC defense as a linebacker, making 26 tackles two years ago, and now the 6-4, 249-pound junior should be a more polished, more dangerous pass rusher. With great speed and a non-stop motor, he'll make sacks on sheer want-to along with his quickness around the edge.

Junior Ladi Ajiboye might be the team's best defensive tackle, making 61 tackles and 4.5 sacks in his first two years, even though he had to fight through a broken hand, but now he has a bigger problem: school. Suspended for academic issues, he's still considered a part of the mix going into the fall, but it's not a done deal. Now that he's back, he's the team's quickest interior presence and a rock of a run stuffer with 6-1, 285-pound size.

6-1, 300-pound senior Nathan Pepper overcame a knee injury that knocked him out three games into the 2007 season and started most of last year, at least when the D was in a 4-3 alignment, making 23 tackles with a sack and five tackles for loss. He has seen time on the end over the course of his career but will now be just a full-time tackle and one of the team's top run stuffers. He's the anchor to work around.

Projected Top Reserves: The big question mark inside will be Travian Robinson, the starter going into the fall because of suspensions. Originally considered an end, the 6-4, 283-pound junior has seen time in a variety of spots as both a backup and a spot starter making 17 tackles and two tackles for loss. While he'll likely end up back in a reserve role again as the season goes on, he's ready to play a bigger role on the inside.

Ready to become a major part of the rotation on the end is 6-7, 232-pound redshirt freshman Devin Taylor, a power-forward looking pass rusher who has tremendous upside in a rotation with Geathers. He has a quick first step and a huge wingspan. Now he needs time and live reps.

Somehow, some way, sophomore Melvin Ingram will be a factor on the line. He started off his career as a huge linebacker, making 13 tackles as a freshman, but broke his foot and missed all of last year. Now he'll be a key backup defensive tackle with 6-2, 297-pound size and tremendous quickness.

True freshman Chaz Sutton got to school early and he showed he's ready to contribute right away. The 6-3, 243-pounder was a top-ranked end recruit with pure pass rushing ability and a speed burst the line doesn't have on the edge. He'll work behind Matthews but could see time on the other side as a third-down specialist.

Watch Out For ... the Ajiboye situation. He was reinstated in late May after his academic issues, and the team needs him. He's a possible NFL starter if he can keep improving, and if he's one of the main factors inside and if Robertson can be a key backup, the line will be fantastic.
Size and quickness. Not only is the line really big and really experienced, but it's full of very quick athletes. There might not be a pure speed rusher, outside of, possibly, Sutton, but everyone will get into the backfield and everyone will be active against the run.
The run defense against the top rushing teams. The line had its moments last year and wasn't bad once the final numbers went through the machine, but the front four was shoved all over the place late in the year giving up 346 rushing yards to Florida, 184 to Clemson and 181 yards to Iowa. The Gamecocks gave up 11 touchdowns in the final three games and went 1-5 when allowing 135 rushing yards or more.
Outlook: The line should be the strength of the team. It's loaded with size, athleticism, and plenty of upside with the young players who were finding their way over the last two years now turning into tough veterans. There's only one senior, Pepper, and there should be more and more production after the season goes on. This was a good line last year, and it should be terrific this season.
Rating: 8


Projected Starters
Senior Eric Norwood is about to become a college football household name. Overshadowed by Jasper Brinkley, at least as far as recognition on a national scale, Norwood came up with the better year finishing second on the team with 75 tackles with nine sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. Used as pass rusher to disrupt things in the backfield, and also the team's most consistent run stopper, he can do it all. While his weight has fluctuated, he's a fast 6-1, 252 pounds and should add big numbers to his school-record tackle-for-loss total of 43. He's not going to do anything against the pass, but that's not his job on the weakside.

Stepping in to the other job in place of Jasper Brinkley in the middle will be Rodney Paulk. An active tackler with great range, he made five tackles as a reserve before getting knocked out for the year with a knee injury. On the plus side, the injury happened early enough last year that it allowed him time to heal up and be ready to go full-speed come fall. He made 64 tackles two years ago, and despite being just 6-0 and 216 pounds he's extremely tough for his size.

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: JUCO transfer Josh Dickerson will step in and be an instant impact player behind Paulk in the middle. At 6-1 and 221 pounds he brings more size than Paulk. While not necessarily a pass rusher, he has tremendous range and big hitting ability. He could be used as a strongside linebacker in a 4-3 without a problem; he's tough enough to handle himself against any running game.

Sophomore Shaq Wilson had a nice true freshman season being used throughout the year as a third linebacker and a key reserve. With defensive back-like speed, the 5-11, 210-pounder was all over the field when he got his chance making 16 tackles with a sack, an interception, and two tackles for loss. He bulked up a bit to handle more work, and he'll get it.

Watch Out For ... Paulk to be fantastic. Norwood will be the signature star, but now that the veteran Paulk is over his knee injury he should be one of the team's leading tacklers. He might not be Jasper Brinkley, but he'll be plenty good and will end up earning all-star honors.
Talent. Norwood could be the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, while Paulk is a strong veteran and Dickerson will be a factor right away. Throw in Wilson, a rising playmaker, and the two in the 4-2-5 will be loaded.
Pass defense. The linebackers aren't supposed to do too much in pass coverage in this alignment, but it would be nice if they could do something. Granted, the team would be more than happy to have the linebackers be used even more as pass rushers than as extra safeties, but they could stand to make a few big plays now and then in coverage.
Outlook: Any linebacking corps with Norwood in it is strong, and he has good players around him. Losing Brinkley hurts and not having Marvin Sapp is a problem, but Paulk is ready to fill the void and there are good young players ready to shine. This will be a good, sound group of disruptive playmakers.
Rating: 8

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters
The Gamecocks went from being ridiculously deep at corner to concerned. They desperately need true freshman Stephon Gilmore to be the instant star he appeared to be in spring ball. It's going to be a little while before he's a No. 1 corner, but at 6-2 and 188 pounds with tremendous speed he has the tools. South Carolina's Mr. Football played like a veteran in practices, but he'll make his share of mistakes early on as he makes the transition from being an offensive superstar to a full-time defender. In time, he'll be an all-star.

Stepping in on the other side will be sophomore Akeem Auguste after making 18 tackles with four broken up passes as a true freshman. Used as a safety and a corner, he has good hitting ability and decent 5-10, 180-pound size. He's a physical defender who won't get pushed around by the bigger receivers, but he'll have to prove early on that he can be a playmaker when the ball is in the air.

Darian Stewart is the team's leader and new star in the secondary after finishing fourth on the team with 64 tackles with two sacks, nine tackles for loss, and eight broken up passes. The 5-11, 216-pound senior did a little of everything at the Spur position, but now he'll move over to strong safety where he'll take over for leading tackler Emmanuel Cook. A better all-around playmaker than Cook, Stewart should shine in his new role and should earn some well-deserved all-star recognition.

At the moment, sophomore Alonzo Winfield will get the nod at the Spur position going into the fall unless Stewart moves back. The 6-0, 222-pounder is more of a linebacker than a safety, but he spent most of his time on the special teams last year making three tackles. He had a nice spring and he should be used as a pass rusher as well as a defensive back.

If Stewart isn't the team's best defensive back, it'll be 6-0, 190-pound junior Chris Culliver. The former wide receiver was fantastic in his first season at free safety making 50 tackles with three interceptions and three broken up passes despite not knowing what he was doing. A phenomenal kickoff returner, he has excellent speed and unlimited range. Now that he's a veteran, he should be a shoo-in for All-SEC honors as a defender as well as for his work on special teams.

Projected Top Reserves: Considering the Gamecocks will be counting on a true freshman in Gilmore to man one of the corner spots, former WR Brandon Davis needs to show that he can be used in a rotation. The 5-11, 175-pound sophomore was a walk-on wideout from Carson-Newman College, and while he's raw, he showed the athleticism this spring needed to get a longer look this fall.

Moving from linebacker to free safety will be Antonio Allen after making five tackles as a true freshman. He originally came to USC as a strong safety and should be far more comfortable with the move back to the secondary. A great hitter with nice athleticism, he'll move around where needed in the secondary.

Junior Addison Williams is the team's most experienced corner by far, but he's limited. He made 22 tackles in his first two years as a key backup with one start, but he has only one pick. While he's quick, he's only 5-8 and 177 pounds and will struggle against the more physical receivers.

Watch Out For ... the secondary to not be the nightmare that many will predict. It'll be all doom and gloom after the mass exit of talent from last year's fantastic secondary, and while this year's group won't be as good, there are several potential stars to get excited about.
The safeties. With Stewart moving to strong safety and Culliver an all-star waiting to happen, the safeties could be the best in the SEC. These two are tremendous playmakers who won't miss a stop and will help out the young corners immeasurably.
The corners. USC has to pray that Gilmore is ready for primetime and it needs Auguste to play like a No. 1 corner at times. This will be the biggest area of concern on a good defense.
Outlook: Captain Munnerlyn, Emmanuel Cook, and Stoney Woodson. The secondary loses three fantastic stars who helped the nation's second ranked pass defense be so strong. The corners need all the help they can get from a pass rush and from the excellent safeties. While this won't be as strong a secondary right away, there's enough speed and talent to keep the mediocre SEC passing games in check.br> Rating: 7

Special Teams

Projected Starters
Gone is Ryan Succop, one of the SEC's best field goal kickers. He hit 20-of-30 attempts last year and was fantastic from deep. Junior punter Spencer Lanning will get the first shot at the job with a good leg and nice range. However, he'll be pushed this fall by Adam Yates, a redshirt freshman bomber who'll take the gig if he can prove he can be consistent. Lanning's punting net wasn't great, but he had a decent year averaging 42.1 yards per boot. He has to hang it up a bit more, but he's good enough to be counted on in key situations.

After finishing 103rd in the nation in punt returns, USC needs more pop and will hope corner Akeem Auguste can provide it as he takes over for Captain Munnerlyn, who averaged a mere 6.6 yards per try. Safety Chris Culliver is a special kickoff returner averaging 24.1 yards per try.

Watch Out For ... the kicking situation to be an issue. USC's offense isn't going to explode and was bailed out time and again by Succop's deep leg. If a strong kicker can't be found, the offense will have to get more creative and take more chances on its side of the field.
Culliver. He didn't come up with any touchdowns, but he busted off several big returns. Teams will have to try to find a way to stay away from him.
The coverage teams. The kickoff coverage has been a problem for the last few years and struggled last year on punt coverage allowing 8.5 yards per try.
Outlook: Not that bad last year, even with the problems on punt returns, the special teams need Lanning to shine as a placekicker to equal the same success. Auguste has to be a weapon as a punt returner.
Rating: 6.5