Ward: Gilmore has respect of teammates

Stephon Gilmore has always been a player that leads by example. Ever since his high school days when he helped lead South Pointe to the 2008 State Championship en route to being named "Mr. Football" in the state of South Carolina and earning a spot on the Parade All-American list.

Now entering his junior year at South Carolina, Gilmore is being asked to take on a new role.

"Stephon has to be a leader for us - not only a leader by example like he's always done - but he's got to be more boisterous because guys listen to him," defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said following Thursday's practice. "They respect him because they respect his work ethic and respect the way he plays so we've got to hear more of a voice from him."

It's easy to understand why Gilmore has earned the respect of his teammates. Gilmore was an immediate starter as a freshman, breaking up a key pass in the team's first game of the season - a 7-3 win over N.C. State. He ended the season fifth on the team with 56 tackles, had one interception, broke up eight passes, forced two fumbles, and recovered two fumbles. Gilmore also returned 15 punts and had a 75-yard touchdown return against Tennessee called back on a penalty that had no affect on the return.

He was one of the stars in a 34-17 win over arch-rival Clemson, running the "Wildcat" formation to perfection. Gilmore carried the ball five times for 20 yards and completed a 39-yard pass to Alshon Jeffery that led to the Gamecocks' first touchdown of the game. He was named the MVP of the Carolina-Clemson game.

Gilmore's season earned him Freshman All-American and Freshman All-SEC honors and was named South Carolina's Male New Student-Athlete of the Year. He led a secondary that was one of the best in the country statistically, giving up just 163 yards per game and just 11 touchdowns all season.

The success of Gilmore and the secondary led to lofty expectations last season. Gilmore was named preseason first-team All-SEC as well as making the list for the Thorpe and Bednarik awards. Gilmore - along with the rest of the secondary - struggled all season.

A year after ranking near the top of the SEC in passing yards per game, Carolina finished at the bottom in 2010. The Gamecocks gave up 242 yards per game - 79 more yards than the year before - and over twice as many touchdowns with 23.

"We had a letdown season last year - we've got to put it behind us and focus on this year," Gilmore said.

Though Gilmore led the team with 79 tackles last season and intercepted three passes - returning one for 80 yards to seal a win over Furman - his season hardly lived up to the expectations from his freshmen year. Though being named first-team and second-team All-SEC and third-team All-American, Gilmore often seemed to be picked on by opposing quarterbacks. Gilmore was beat badly on a pair of touchdown passes in the first quarter of the SEC Championship game on double moves.

"Stephon got beat on double moves so we've been working hard on double moves," Ward said. "Our offense has done a good job this spring giving us some. The bottom line is any time you break on a route playing man-to-man you've got to break to the receiver, not the ball. He's understanding that and there's two things that can happen when you break on the receiver - (interception or) if he takes off and there's a collision and the ball is in the air it's a penalty but not a touchdown."

Gilmore has taken personal offense to the criticism that has been thrown towards the secondary, continuing to show a tremendous amount of work ethic on and off the field. That has drawn even more respect from his teammates.

"They respect him because he comes to work every day and he works hard," Ward said. "Now he needs to take it to that next level because he already has the respect of the players. Now he needs to make sure that the younger guys start understanding what we're doing on defense."

Gilmore - who could turn pro after this season - will take on the task of helping raise up a new generation of Gamecocks cornerbacks with the likes of Victor Hampton and Cadarious Sanders. There's no doubt those guys look up to the All-SEC performer and All-America candidate who seems destined to the next level.

"He's earned and deserved everything he's gotten," Ward said. "Again, the label he's been given in terms of responsibility - he's responsible for his teammates just like himself."

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