February 13, 2008

2008 Defensive Outlook: A New Direction?

New defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson picked a good time to join the South Carolina coaching staff.

The Gamecocks' defense returns 10 of the 11 players that started the Clemson game, eight of whom have two or more years of eligibility remaining.

Here's the impact those young defenders had in 2008: the top four tacklers were all sophomores. Overall, seven of the top nine tacklers return to USC this fall.

Johnson's mandate is simple: stop the run. USC finished 12th in the SEC in rushing defense last season, allowing 209.3 yards per game.

While defensive end/linebacker Casper Brinkley is the only starter to depart, his twin brother Jasper made headlines in January when he officially decided to return to the Gamecocks in 2008 and forego the opportunity to join his brother in the NFL.

After suffering season-ending torn knee ligaments in the fourth games of season last September, Jasper Brinkley feels he has plenty to prove to pro scouts.

Of course, he has nothing to prove to Johnson or head coach Steve Spurrier after making 107 tackles as USC's starting middle linebacker in 2006, and averaging seven tackles in his first three games of 2007.

With Jasper Brinkley returning to the fold, Johnson will use non-erasable ink writing his name into the lineup for each game in 2008 unless he suffers another devastating injury.

Will lightning strike twice? Brinkley hopes not. He could have millions of dollars riding on how well he plays next season. When last year started, Brinkley was considered a probable first-round draft pick. He could play himself back into that position with another huge year.

Don't look for Brinkley, though, this spring as he continues his rehabilitation from his serious injury. The coaches will play its safe and keep him on the sideline, as they should.

It's called protecting your assets.

With Brinkley set to return at middle linebacker, the focus shifts to who will play beside him on the outside. Junior Rodney Paulk started all 12 games at strongside linebacker and finished with 64 tackles, the most of any LB on the roster.

Paulk has 100 tackles in his first two seasons with the Gamecocks and certainly heads into spring practice as one of the favorites to start alongside Brinkley.

Sophomore Cliff Matthews took a firm grasp of the outside linebacker spot opposite Paulk starting with the LSU game. In fact, he started against the eventual national champions despite suffering a small break in his right hand in practice during the week leading up to game.

Matthews finished with 26 tackles, and was credited with USC's first blocked punt since the 2000 season.

While Paulk and Matthews have experience on their side, they'll have to fight off players like sophomore Melvin Ingram (15 tackles in 2007), junior Gerrod Sinclair (15 tackles), and possibly Dustin Lindsey, who hasn't played more than a handful of snaps since the 2005 Independence Bowl for a variety of reasons, mostly academics and injuries.

Who will backup Brinkley in the middle? Marvin Sapp took over the spot after he suffered the torn knee ligaments against LSU and did an adequate job filling in over the final eight games of the season, compiling 61 tackles, fifth most on the team.

Both Brinkley and Sapp are entering their final campaigns of college football. Who is the successor at middle linebacker? It's possible Ingram is the guy.

This could be the year Ingram proves he's capable of taking over the job on a full-time basis starting in 2009.

Alonzo Winfield of Winston-Salem, N.C. was redshirted in 2007 and could make a move up the depth chart this season.

True freshmen Shaq Wilson from First Coast High School in Jacksonville, Fla. was rated a three-star prospect by Rivals.com. He enrolled at USC in January and will participate in spring practice.

Is Wilson good enough to take playing time away from one of the veterans? We'll find out soon enough.

The other LB signee, Reggie Bowens, a former high school teammate of Chris Culliver, recently underwent surgery and will likely redshirt in 2008.

With so much depth at linebacker, where does that leave players like Yvan Banag, Vandaral Shackleford and Damien Wright? They'll probably see most of their action on special teams.

Despite the fact USC signed five new defensive backs in this year's recruiting class, three of whom are already enrolled at USC, three-quarters of the starting secondary is set for next season with cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safeties Emanuel Cook and Darian Stewart preparing for their junior campaigns.

The most likely position where an intense battle could erupt is the cornerback slot opposite Munnerlyn. Carlos Thomas started seven game there in 2007, but senior Stoney Woodson, sophomore Addison Williams and redshirt freshman Jamire Williams could all join the fight before the spring is over.

Enrolling early at USC and going through spring practice could improve the prospects for new signees Akeem Auguste, Antonio Allen and Jay Spearman.

Munnerlyn, considered USC's top cover corner, suffered a broken bone in his left foot in the Arkansas game and played just one snap over the final two games. The Gamecock secondary felt his absence in the losses to Florida and Clemson.

Still, the diminutive yet hard-nosed cornerback from Mobile, Ala. enjoyed a solid season with 47 tackles, three interceptions and four pass breakups, and was one of the key reasons USC had the top passing defense in the SEC.

Here's the type of season Cook had: he was sidelined for the season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette and most of the victory over Georgia with an appendectomy, but still led the Gamecocks in tackles by a wide margin with 92.

Cook, the strong safety, is one of the toughest and most fearless players on the team and is becoming well known in SEC circles for his strong tackling skills against the run. Besides the 92 tackles, Cook also collected his first two career interceptions.

In two seasons, Cook has made 139 tackles, a remarkable number for a strong safety. Stewart emerged in the Georgia game with nine tackles and went on to finish with 68, third highest on the team.

Thomas experienced an up-and-down season in 2007 with 17 tackles and six pass breakups. He split starts with the departed Brandon Isaac.

Will Thomas be able to hold off the challengers for his position? Spring practice should provide an answer.

The addition of five defensive line signees in the 2008 signing class increases the number of players under Brad Lawing's direction to 17.

We know junior Eric Norwood (69 tackles, 19.5 for loss, six sacks and nine quarterback hurries in 2007), whose motor never seems to stop, will start at one defensive end position.

It's also probable junior Ladi Ajiboye (39 tackles, three sacks) will retain his starting job at defensive tackle after an impressive freshman campaign that earned him spots on multiple Freshman All-America teams.

Mammoth Kenrick Ellis finished the 2007 season on a positive note and appeared to have the inside track to the starting DT job alongside Ajiboye. But he's been suspended for the first three games for violating university policy.

It's a major setback for the West Palm Beach, Fla. product just as he was starting to rise up the depth chart. Time will tell if he can overcome it.

With Ellis sidelined, the two probable candidates to replace him in the starting lineup are seniors Marque Hall (22 tackles) and Jonathan Williams (13 tackles). Hall struggled trying to comeback from a serious left knee injury sustained against Georgia in 2006.

Williams, a JUCO transfer, showed flashes of ability last season, and could make a greater impact this season. Redshirt freshmen Donte'e Nicholls is also available, but he may have to wait a season for his opportunity.

One of the biggest question marks at defensive tackle is how quickly Nathan Pepper will return to full health after suffering a season-ending knee injury against S.C. State last season while returning an interception for a touchdown.

Jarriel King, a 6-foot-7, 285-pound defensive tackle who initially committed to USC three years ago before academic difficulties forced him to attend junior college, will certainly be in the mix as long as he completes his academic requirements at Georgia Military College and is able to enroll at USC.

There is certainly no shortage of candidates to replace Casper Brinkley at the defensive end position opposite Norwood. They include sophomores Travian Robertson and Clifton Geathers, redshirt freshmen Byron McKnight and Chaz Sutton of Savannah, Fla., a four-star prospect who originally committed to Florida before signing with USC.

One of those players could end up as Norwood's backup.

However, the most intriguing candidate at defensive end could be Jordin Lindsey, who was academically ineligible for the 2007 season. Lindsey had 37 tackles in 2006 and could prove to be the productive run-stopper Spurrier craves.

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