January 4, 2008

Brinkley: Nix Convinced Me To Stay

It's not known how strong of a throwing arm Tyrone Nix has, but you can credit him with a major league save.

Thanks largely to Nix's urging, middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley will return to South Carolina for the 2008 season rather than join his twin brother Casper in preparing for the NFL Draft.

But here's the twist - Nix contacted Brinkley shortly after he accepted the job of defensive coordinator at Ole Miss on Dec. 11 under new head coach Houston Nutt.

After joining the USC staff in 2005 shortly after the hiring of Steve Spurrier as head coach, Nix served as USC's defensive coordinator in 2006 and 2007, developing a close bond with Jasper Brinkley, who, along with his sibling, grew up in Thomson, Ga. before attending Georgia Military College for two seasons (2004-2005).

Considering USC and Ole Miss face off Oct. 4 in Oxford, it was a bold move by Nix.

"At first, I felt after (Nix) left that I was going to leave too," Brinkley said. "But I had a very good talk with him. We talked for a couple of hours. He thought the best thing for me was to come back to school and be 100 percent and be even better than I was. He thought that was the best decision. We had a father-son type relationship, so what he said really affected me in a way."

Had he departed for the NFL, Brinkley believes he would have been selected, albeit later than he wanted, even though he's still recovering from a devastating knee injury sustained last September in the fourth game of the season.

Unlike last year, though, Brinkley did not submit the necessary paperwork to the NFL this time around for an evaluation of his draft prospects.

"It would have been a question mark," Brinkley said. "More than likely, I think I would have been picked between the third round to fifth rounds, somewhere around there. I think by coming back to school and rehabbing the knee and playing like I have, I can become a first round pick, or at least a day one guy.

"Right now, I have something to prove. But I feel that way every time I step onto the football field. I'm more worried right now about rehabbing my leg and getting my strength back to where it should."

About 3-1/2 months after the injury, Brinkley is now jogging. He expects to be able to run full speed by the end of January.

"The rehab is going really well. I haven't had any setbacks," Brinkley said. "Everything is pretty positive for me right now. I just want to keep my head straight about coming back to school. I'm just trying to get ready for next season and get ready to go out and perform."

Brinkley expects to be held out of most contact drills when spring practice starts in mid-March. The spring game is scheduled for April 19 at Williams-Brice Stadium.

"I expect to be limited, but I don't want to sit out too much," Brinkley said. "I'm sure they'll want to be cautious."

Besides the strong push by Nix, Brinkley also attributes a nearly half-hour long conversation with new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder at the Atlanta Falcons' training facility in Flowery Branch, Ga. for his decision to return to USC.

VanGorder, who enjoyed a successful four-year tenure as Georgia's defensive coordinator from 2001-2004, served as linebackers coach for the Falcons this past season.

But, like most of the other assistant coaches on the team, he found himself left out in the cold when head coach Bobby Petrino resigned suddenly with three games remaining in the regular season to take over at Arkansas.

Brinkley said he was highly impressed with his new mentor.

"He's very highly regarded as one of the best coaches in the business," Brinkley said. "I know he has a great deal of knowledge about playing linebacker. I feel he can help my game and make me a better player. We talked mostly about turning the program around."

Brinkley was USC's top defensive player in 2006 with 107 tackles and appeared headed for another stellar campaign this past season when he suffered torn knee ligaments early in the LSU game on Sept. 22.

As a result, he was forced to watch the rest of the season from the sidelines. The USC initially played well in Brinkley's absence, but succumbed late in the season to teams that featured punishing running games - Arkansas (650 total yards) and Florida (537 total yards) in particular.

"Unfortunately, the ball didn't roll our way the last five games of the season," Brinkley said. "With my injury and some other things, things didn't go the way they should have."

Brinkley's presence in the middle at linebacker next season will provide a much-needed lift for a Gamecock defense that returns most of its major contributors from this past season.

Only Casper Brinkley and defensive backs Chris Hampton and Brandon Isaac would qualify as significant losses for a unit that finished last in the SEC in rushing defense.

Hampton (42 tackles in 12 games) and Isaac (21 tackles in nine games) were primarily backups last season. Ten of the 11 defensive players that started the Clemson game will return in 2008.

"I'm very excited about the guys we've got coming back," Brinkley said. "Some of our players got a lot of experience last season. We just have to go out and put forth the effort and get the job done."

Casper Brinkley, who had 103 tackles, including 26.5 for loss, and 10 sacks in two productive seasons with the Gamecocks, has signed with an agent and is currently working out in Pensacola, Fla. preparing for late April's NFL Draft.

"He loves it down there and has been enjoying it a great deal," Jasper Brinkley said. "He's been training every day. He's been told that if he gets drafted it would probably be by a team that runs a 3-4 scheme."

The Brinkley twins combined for 151 tackles, 28 for loss, and 12 sacks in 2006 during their first season with the Gamecocks.

The return of Jasper Brinkley, along with the expected decision of rising senior wide receiver Kenny McKinley to forego the NFL Draft as well, could set a positive tone for spring practice as the Gamecocks seek to put the season-ending five-game losing streak behind them.

McKinley set a school single season record with 77 receptions this past season, and is currently just 16 behind Sterling Sharpe (169) in his pursuit to become USC' all-time leading receiver.

McKinley led the SEC in receptions (77), average receptions per game (6.42) and receiving yards per game (80.7), and earned First-Team All-SEC honors from the league's coaches.

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