2006 Position Preview: Secondary

The South Carolina defensive backfield will have a new look in 2006. One year ago, the Gamecocks fielded what was arguably one of the better pass defenses in the entire nation, but after early departures by Ko Simpson and Jon Joseph to the NFL and the loss of Tremaine Tyler to graduation, the secondary is left looking to regroup.

Although questions may abound for the Gamecock secondary, the one stabilizing force will be senior cornerback, Fred Bennett. The 6'1, 202 pound native of Manning (SC) is a pre-season 1st Team All-SEC selection, and he has been projected as one of the top cornerbacks in the nation by multiple media outlets. Bennett had 31 tackles and 3 interceptions as a junior last season, but his experience and leadership will be equally as important as his play on the field in 2006. Coach Spurrier believes that Bennett has answered the bell this off-season and is up to the challenges that await him this fall.

"Fred has been one of our best leaders (this off-season). Fred is probably going to be the captain on defense. I think he's a lot stronger than he was last year."

Sophomore Carlos Thomas will man the cornerback spot opposite Fred Bennett, but he has some big shoes to fill after the departure of Jon Joseph, who was a first round draft pick by the Cincinnati Bengals this spring. Nevertheless, expectations are high for Thomas, who started three games at wide receiver last season before being moved to cornerback. The 5'11, 180 pound Thomas has displayed the coverage skills necessary to be a top flight cornerback in this league, but in order to become a complete player, he will have to improve his tackling.

Depth at cornerback could be a concern, but Stoney Woodson, who started one game last season, will be the top reserve and is expected to be a solid contributor in 2006. The 5'11, 186 pound redshirt sophomore brings a physical style of play to the cornerback rotation, and after sitting out much of the spring with a nagging hamstring injury, Woodson is expected to be back at full speed for fall camp.

Redshirt freshman Jeremy Ware could be the wildcard in the cornerback rotation. The 5'10, 188 pound Ware showed flashes of potential during the spring, but much like Thomas, questions about his tackling and physicality still linger. Due to lack of depth, Ware will likely see plenty of action in a reserve role this fall, but if he can provide quality relief minutes, then the secondary would benefit greatly.

While Jon Joseph may have gotten the bigger check on draft day, Ko Simpson will be the more difficult of the two for the Gamecocks to replace. The 6'1, 210 pound safety served as the last line of defense for USC last season, and he was often relied upon to make touchdown saving tackles. In all, Simpson totaled 103 tackles in 2005, which led all defensive backs in the SEC. Ko Simpson cannot be replaced by any one player this season, but the Gamecocks are hoping that a blend of quality upperclassmen and talented newcomers will help to ease the burden.

Chris Hampton is one player who appears primed for a breakout season heading into 2006. The Memphis (TN) native is entering his junior season, and after seeing extensive action as a reserve in his first two seasons, Hampton is ready to take that next step. The 5'11, 186 pound Hampton, who recorded 28 tackles and 2 pass break ups last season, performed well in spring camp, and he is the favorite to win the starting strong safety spot entering into the fall.

Quite possibly the most talented player in the safety rotation this fall will be Brandon Isaac. The 6'2, 191 pound senior started two games last season after transferring in from Georgia Military, and his 34 stops in 2005 make him the Gamecocks leading returning tackler. Isaac sat out of contact drills during the spring while recovering from off-season shoulder surgery, but expectations are high for the Blackville (SC) native heading into this season. Isaac is one of the fastest players on the team, and he has a natural ability to break on the ball from the free safety spot. Isaac has been tagged with the dreaded "potential" title since his arrival at Carolina, but now entering his second full season as a Gamecock, he could emerge as a much needed force in the defensive backfield.

Junior Ty Erving finished the spring listed as first team on the depth chart, but the 5'10, 197 pound safety has been suspended for the first three games of the 2006 season for an undisclosed violation. Erving, who totaled 8 tackles in a reserve role last season, was named the "Most Improved Defensive Back" at the conclusion of spring camp.

One newcomer who is expected to compete for early playing time is Emanuel Cook. The 6'0, 205 pound safety was named the 6A Player of the Year in the state of Florida last season, and since his arrival in late July, he has reportedly been one of the most impressive physical specimens on the team. Cook is a punishing hitter, and if he performs well in fall camp, then he could see extensive action in 2006. Cook has yet to even step foot on the practice fields, but Coach Spurrier recently acknowledged that the Riviera Beach (FL) native has the potential to be a special player.

"One freshman you might want to keep an eye on is Emanuel Cook. I think right now we're putting him where Ko Simpson played. From what I hear, Emanuel runs extremely well and is one of the strongest freshmen reporting, so he's physically ready to play as a freshman."

A couple of other newcomers who are expected to vie for playing time this fall are Alabama natives Darian Stewart and Captain Munnerlyn. Stewart will compete for playing time at safety, while Munnerlyn will receive a look at both wide receiver and cornerback.

Overall, the Gamecock secondary will lack the star power that it showcased in 2005, but barring injury, this unit still has the potential to be solid in 2006.

Projected Starters: Fred Bennett, Carlos Thomas, Chris Hampton, Brandon Isaac Top Reserves: Stoney Woodson, Jeremy Ware, Ty Erving, Emanuel Cook, Darian Stewart, Captain Munnerlyn, Jerod June, Aubrey McKay

This has been the sixth piece in a continuing, eight part series of 2006 South Carolina position previews.

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