March 22, 2008

Culliver Gets Defensive, Moves To Safety

Without him catching a pass in a game, the plan of utilizing Chris Culliver and his blazing speed to help ignite South Carolina's passing game is over.

At least for the time being.

Culliver, possibly the most highly regarded recruit in USC's heralded 2007 signing class, has shifted to defensive back, his primary position in high school.

He spent Saturday's two-hour workout, conducted on the Bluff Road practice fields under mostly sunny skies, at safety.

"We moved Chris Culliver (and his former high team teammate Cedric Snead) over to defense," USC head coach Steve Spurrier said following practice. "We needed a little help there. It just wasn't working that well on offense. We just felt like maybe it was time to let him see if he can become a starter somewhere at safety on defense."

USC will practice for the third time this spring on Monday at 7 p.m. They are also scheduled to work out Wednesday night (7 p.m.) and Friday afternoon (4:15 p.m.) before conducting the first full-contact scrimmage of the spring next Saturday at 10 a.m.

Culliver showed exceptional talent as a defensive back and kick returner at Garner (N.C.) High school, but his attention turned to the offensive side of the ball after an MVP performance in the Offensive-Defensive All-Star Game in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. following the 2006 season. He caught three passes for 97 yards, including a 77-yard TD reception in that game.

"Chris never played receiver much at all until he got here," Spurrier said. "But he wanted to play receiver and we generally allow each player to pick where he wants to play. After that, if it's not working, we tell them we need over here and so forth. He was very comfortable in moving. In fact, it was sort of his idea. We were ready to make the move also, so we're all happy right now over on defense."

As a result, he arrived at South Carolina looking to make an impact at wide receiver. But he struggled, like many young pass catchers, to understand the scheme and to get open against talented SEC cornerbacks.

Culliver saw limited action at the WR position last season and finished with no receptions. His biggest contribution came on special teams, where he was USC's top kickoff returner with an average of 23.8 yards per return, the eighth highest figure in the SEC.

His 809 kick return yards ranked second in school history.

Culliver could become the centerpiece of a rejuvenated special teams unit under new special teams coordinator Ray Rychleski, who has impressed Spurrier in the early going. USC works on special teams for 15 minutes in the pre-practice period before stretching. After that, they spend another 10 minutes on it in the middle of practice

"Coach Rychleski is the most organized special teams coach I've ever been around," Spurrier said. "Every year we say we're emphasizing it, but I think now we're spending more time with it so we know what were doing. Hopefully, it will pay dividends for us. We're trying to get the best players on there."

Culliver, the recently reinstated Dion Lecorn and true freshman Charles Whitlock worked as punt returners Saturday.

The quarterback battle continued on Saturday with the three quarterbacks in contention for the starting job - Chris Smelley, Tommy Beecher and Stephen Garcia - taking an equal number of reps in the 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills.

Smelley completed 2-of-4 passes in the final segment against USC's 11-man defensive corps, and threw a vicious block on a reverse to Jason Barnes. Beecher and Garcia both completed 2-of-5 passes. One of Garcia's connections came on a well-thrown pass to Moe Brown over the middle.

Each QB got multiple opportunities to run with the ball, as well, in furtherance of Spurrier's vow to make USC's offense more versatile in order keep opposing defenses honest.

"The quarterbacks saw more opportunities to run the ball in today's practice," Spurrier said. "We've got a few running plays in (for the quarterbacks) and hopefully that will help our running game if the quarterback is a little bit of a threat. They all can run about 4.7 (in the 40), so they're very capable."

Culliver's move to safety means USC's other wide receivers like Jason Barnes, Mark Barnes and Joseph Hills should get more repetitions.

"They're doing okay," Spurrier said. "Nobody has really stood out too much yet."

SMELLEY OVERCOMING SHOULDER PROBLEM: Chris Smelley is battling a shoulder injury as he competes with Stephen Garcia and Tommy Beecher for the starting quarterback job. Smelley has, by far, the most playing experience of the three signal-callers, completing 92 of 162 passes (56.8 percent) for 1,176 yards and nientouchdowns last season.

"It's getting better," Smelley said. "I probably threw a little too much (Friday). The competition got to me and I didn't want to back out. It might be a little sore (Saturday) but it is getting better."

Smelley said he's not going to allow the injury to take him out of the highly-watched QB race. He started six games last season.

"We have a lot of good QB's out here, so I didn't want to pull out early and let the others get all the reps," Smelley said. "I am just going to continue to work hard and prove myself as a quarterback quarterback and get better every day. You can't let anybody else outwork you. Get here early and leave late and become the best quarterback you can be."

Smelley sustained his injury in the opening game of the 2007 season when he failed to audible out of a bad play against Louisiana-Lafayette and was blindsided by a blitzing linebacker.

"(The injury) stems from when I got injured in the first game of the year and it didn't heal properly and it was giving me some pain," Smelley said. "I had a little work done on it during the off season."

Added Spurrier: "He's got no one to blame but himself. They had a big blitz on and he left thre play one where everyone was free to go (downfield). We thought we had him coached up to check into the three-step (drop), but he got smashed by two guys. He had minor surgery in January to repair it. It might bother him here and there, but he threw a lot of good ones last year."

Smelley isn't concerned that most of the off-season media attention has been focused on Garcia, a redshirt freshman from Tampa whom some people expect will become USC's starting quarterback in the fall.

"I understand it, but I feel like I have gotten in there and done pretty well," Smelley said. "I just want to limit my mistakes and learn from last year and hopefully be a much better quarterback this year."

NORWOOD TALKS ABOUT MOVE: Eric Norwood was USC's productive defesive end last season, but he's starting out this year as an outside linebacker. Norwood, who led USC with six sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss, sees little difference between the positions.

"I still go the defensive end on third and long situations," Norwood said. "It's going to be about 80 percent standing up and 20 percent with my hand down. It's a little different, but I played there in high school. I like the move, but they told me on Wednesday. It was perfectly fine with me."

BEAMER WORKING WITH SECONDARY: Spurrier's decisions to hire Ellis Johnson as defensive coordinator and linebackers and Ray Rychleski as special team coordinator forced Shane Beamer to fins a new position to coach. Since Johnson advocated two coaches in the secondary, Beamer is now coaching the cornerbacks.

After two days of practice, he's still missing his top two corners in Captain Munnerlun, who's sitting out while he continues to recover from a broken foot, and Carlos Thomas, who's indefinitely suspended because of behavioral issues.

Take away the injured Stoney Woodson (hamstring), and Beamer spent most of Saturday's practice working with inexperienced players like true freshman Akeem Auguste, sophomore Addison Williams and Chris Hail.

"With the injury situation and Carlos' situation, we don't have a lot of bodies," Beamer said. "Addison Williams has done a good job. Those guys are coming along.

2008 SPRING PRACTICE COUNTDOWN
Practices Held - 2
Practices Left - 13
Next Practice - Mon., March 24, 7 p.m.

NOTES:

-- Stoney Woodson was the latest addition to a growing yellow shirt squad Saturday. He sat out with a hamstring injury. LB Marvin Sapp (hernia surgery), OL Gurminder Thind (bad back), Nick Prochak (injuries from scooter accident), WR Kenny McKinley (bone spurs on toe), DL Nathan Pepper (recovering from torn knee ligaments) and TE Dustin Lindsey (recent arthroscopic surgery on knee) continued to wear yellow jerseys.

-- The first team defense in Saturday's drills: DE Travian Robertson, DT Marque Hall, DT Ladi Ajiboye, DE Jordin Lindsey, MLB Jasper Brinkley, OLB Eric Norwood, OLB Gerrod Sinclair, CB Addison Williams, CB Akeem Auguste, SS Emanuel Cook and FE Darian Stewart.

-- McKinley said he hopes to return by the end of spring practice, and is taking his injury "day by day." McKinley described his injury as a bad case of turf toe. "I'm trying to get it back right," McKinley said. "The healing process is going along great. I should be back out here in no time." Spurrier said McKinley "has already proven he knows what to do and he can play."

-- Freshman Antonio Allen has moved to cornerback, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said.

-- Former Gamecock Syvelle Newton attended Saturday's practice. He said he's currently on inured reserve with the Georgia Force of the Arena Football League. His brother Cameron Newton also plays with the indoor team. Newton said he's playing defensive back and wide receiver for the Force, and hopes this opportunity is the stepping stone to the NFL. While he enjoys the indoor game, he acknowledged hitting the wall is "no fun." Newton is also continuing to pursue a music career. His brother owns a record label and Syvelle has signed with him with the hopes of recording a CD soon.


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