Norwood's Change of Heart Bolsters Team

FAYETTEVILLE — Four days after announcing his plans to enter the NFL Draft, South Carolina linebacker Eric Norwood had a change of heart.

Projected as a late-round pick, Norwood sat down with his mother in the days following the Gamecocks' 31-10 loss to Iowa in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1 and considered his options.

It didn't take long for the Southeastern Conference's reigning sack leader to realize that there were plenty of reasons for him to return for his senior season.

"As far as coming back, it was just more of security," Norwood said at last month's SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. "I felt more secure coming back, just being able to have my degree in December and also lead my team. I didn't have all that pressure about training for the (NFL) Combine and this and that."

Norwood is on track to earn his criminal justice degree in December and become the first person in his immediate family to graduate from college.

And with 22 sacks in three seasons, Norwood needs only 4 1/2 more to surpass Andrew Provence as South Carolina's all-time sacks leader. He already holds the school's career record for tackles for loss with 43.

Not bad for a guy who was three times denied admission into South Carolina because of his low grade point average coming out of North Cobb (Ga.) High School.

"It's a crapshoot with (the NFL Draft)," Norwood said. "... I've been (in) Columbia (for) three years and I love it, so one more year isn't going to kill me."

Despite being named last month to the media's preseason All-SEC first team, the 6-foot-1, 252-pound linebacker admitted he still needs to improve in every aspect of his game. The Gamecocks, meanwhile, have their own problems..

After losing six games for a second consecutive season in 2008, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has lost much of his swagger and he's not as willing to poke fun at opposing coaches while his team remains in the middle of the pack in the SEC.

"I've not done as good a job as I hoped to have done," said Spurrier, whose team will play at Arkansas on Nov. 7.

But Norwood admitted he has high hopes for his final year at South Carolina, both personally and for the team. He wants to win and prove that returning for his senior season was a smart decision.

"I feel like we can get over that hump. Last year was last year, and the years before that we just put them behind us," Norwood said. "We just try to look forward to going out and winning."


DIFFERENCE MAKER: Though talented, quarterback Stephen Garcia's career at South Carolina has been known more for his off-the-field troubles than his on-the-field heroics. But coach Steve Spurrier admitted that the sophomore must play well in his first year as the starter if the Gamecocks have any chance of winning more than seven games in 2009.

RISING STAR: Highly touted freshman Stephon Gilmore has already secured a starting cornerback spot, and Spurrier has gone so far as to say Gilmore could be one of the best players in school history. Talk about high expectations.

BIGGEST STRENGTH: South Carolina has plenty of holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but its defensive line should look relatively the same with three returning starters — including defensive tackles Ladi Ajiboye and Nathan Pepper. Defensive end Cliff Matthews also has room to grow.

BIGGEST QUESTION: The question that everyone seems to keep asking Spurrier is whether this will be the year he finally turns the Gamecocks into a legitimate contender in the SEC. He's averaged only seven wins a season in his four years in Columbia, and the expectations aren't too high this year.

MARK YOUR CALENDAR: Spurrier has never been afraid to express his opinion, and he did so a few months ago when he confronted Lane Kiffin about one of the Tennessee coach's colorful remarks this offseason. The week leading up to their Oct. 31 game in Knoxville should be interesting.

FORECAST: Fourth in the SEC East.

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