Filling the void
The South Carolina defense has faced adversity many times already this year. When they gave up 14 points in the first half of their season opener against Louisiana Lafayette they rebounded to shut the Ragin' Cajuns out in the second half. When they seemingly made the plays to get themselves off the field in Athens, only to be forced to stop the Bulldogs again after two personal foul penalties and a roughing the kicker penalty, the Gamecocks stiffened and held Georgia out of the end zone. And when LSU knocked the Gamecocks around to the tune of 290 yards on the ground last Saturday, the Gamecocks kept fighting to give their team a chance by holding the Tigers to 21 offensive points, 14 of which were scored in the first half.
The resilient group of Gamecocks will face their biggest bout with adversity yet, as they will deal with finishing the season without their physical and emotional leader on defense. The term "heart of the defense" is thrown around about top defensive players all the time, but the phrase has never been more appropriate than when describing Jasper Brinkley. Not only was Brinkley the most decorated of all the Gamecock defenders, but he also had a tendency to raise the level of play of the players around him. From a less emotional perspective, Brinkley was also in charge of the defense's calls and was considered the quarterback of the defense.
A talent such as Jasper Brinkley is not replaced by one person. The senior and former junior college transfer was a game-changer, who when healthy would make plays all over the field and especially beefed up the Gamecocks' run defense. However, life must go on for the Gamecocks, and as with any team, when one member goes down, other players have to step up in order for the unit to still function at a high level.
Here are some the players who will need to raise their level of play with the absence of Brinkley in the middle:
Sapp is the most obvious player to mention first, as he will get first crack at starting in place of Brinkley. The 5-11, 228 pound junior does not possess the physical prowess of the 250+ pound Brinkley, but does have experience in the system and plays hard at all times. Sapp also has a knack for being in the right place to makes tackles. Despite splitting time with Rodney Paulk last season, he finished second to Brinkley on the team in tackles with 51. While the Jacksonville, FL native has enjoyed an up and down career to this point, Spurrier's complimented his great attitude and hustle. He will get his first shot at stepping up this Saturday against Anthony Dixon and the stout Mississippi State running game.
Listed second on the depth chart at Brinkley's now-vacated middle linebacker spot is true freshman Melvin Ingram, who brings many of the same physical characteristics to the spot as Brinkley. He is as big as Brinkley, runs well, and is a head-hunter who the South Carolina staff was extremely high on out of high school. The one problem being Ingram is still a true freshman playing what is possibly the most important spot on the Gamecock defense. While Ingram has been on the field a lot this year, he has yet to look comfortable or show the playmaking ability he did his senior season in high school and at the Shrine Bowl.
As Spurrier tells recruits when he is trying to convince them to come to Carolina, he's not scared to play freshmen, and Ingram will get every opportunity to win the job. Fortunately for South Carolina, Sapp's experience along with the manageable stretch of opponents the Gamecocks face, will allow the coaches to bring Ingram along slowly in hopes of him being a contributor for the tail end of the schedule, when they face the dynamic Arkansas, Florida, and Clemson rushing attacks.
Dustin Lindsey has had a strange career at South Carolina. After replacing the highly touted Ricardo Hurley as the starting middle linebacker midway through the 2005 season, Lindsey finished the season as one of the more consistent performers on defense. Lindsey then missed the 2005 Independence Bowl and the entire 2006 season after being deemed academically ineligible. He returned to spring practice this year, only to miss all of fall camp while rehabbing a torn ACL that he suffered in the Garnet and Black spring game. He then returned to the lineup in week two against Georgia only to reaggravate the same knee.
The Athletic Department has remained quiet about the extent of Lindsey's injury, but there is a chance he could be back for the Kentucky game. If Lindsey could return then, or even a few games later, it would be just in time for the Gamecocks' final stretch. Lindsey brings a physical style of play and is a hard-nosed performer who has good instincts. If Lindsey can get healthy, he may provide the best combination of quality SEC experience and physical prowess for the Gamecocks. It would be a strange road back to the starting lineup for the Mobile, AL native, but he could be the saving grace for the Gamecocks' run defense.
While it's hard to ask a player who is playing on such a high level already to step his game up even more, Cook will likely be asked to do more in the coming weeks. Without Brinkley's presence in the middle, Cook will likely be brought into the box more often to help stop the run. The sophomore safety is a sure tackler who has played incredibly well after returning quicker than expected from a pre-season appendectomy.
The play of Captain Munnerlyn, who has built on a solid freshman campaign to become the Gamecocks' premier cover corner, should allow the coaches to bring Cook into the box while placing Munnerlyn on an island without fear. Cook has been all over the field recently and already excels in coming up and stopping the run, so the fact he will simply have to do it more often should not be a problem.
The Entire Offense
The defense has done a great job through the first third of the season, keeping South Carolina in ball games even at times when they were put in precarious situations. As the season rolls on, the time for the offense to repay the favor may be upon us. In each of Spurrier's first two seasons at South Carolina, the offense has steadily improved as the season has progressed, so that trend will need to continue here. For the Gamecocks to have the season they want, the offense will need the guard play to improve and another receiver to step up. This, combined with the already strong tight end play and the threat the running backs pose as receivers out of the backfield, should give the offense just the firepower it needs for the Gamecocks to make a run at their first SEC-East title.
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