"We've got to step it up"
Munnerlyn made a quick name for himself last season. His elite speed and physical brand of play in practice had Gamecock fans excited before the games even started. Once Munnerlyn hit the field for real, he did everything he could to live up to those expectations, grabbing a pair of interceptions along the way. This year, Munnerlyn has become a somewhat unexpected source of stability for a defensive unit that seems to face a new obstacle every week.
Going into the fifth game of the season, the Gamecock defense is at a crossroads. With their best player, middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, lost for the season, the defensive coaches have been forced to do even more shuffling of personnel than usual. Over the first four games, just five players have started every game at the same position. That number will slip to four when junior Marvin Sapp steps in for Brinkley. Munnerlyn is the only member of the secondary to have started all four games, and he talked about the adversity the team is facing this week.
"We look at it like we've just got to pick it up more," said Munnerlyn. "Guys have got to step up. Losing Jasper, it hurt. It hurt the whole team. You could tell by [Monday's] practice on defense that we were kind of down a little bit. You can tell a face was missing out there. The leader that we need was gone. Everything got better when he called, and he told me to come get him and bring him to the stadium. I saw a smile on his face, so I felt like everything is going to be okay. People get hurt all the time, but when you lose your leader on your defense, it kind of hurt me too."
When Munnerlyn was pressed further about that lack of emotion, he stressed emphatically that there would be no emotional letdown come Saturday.
"I don't want to say that's going to affect the way we play football," he said. "Not emotionally. Jap will probably come out there and talk to us, get us back up. We're fine, we'll be okay."
Munnerlyn has confidence that Sapp will play well in Brinkley's absence. He kept returning the idea that Brinkley's injury is just the opportunity Sapp needed to prove his ability on the football field.
"Sapp, he is great," Munnerlyn assured reporters. "He's quick, he's fast, [and] he can play football, too. Without Jasper, we've got to have somebody that can step it up quick. Sapp is a laid back, cool guy. He doesn't say too much. He learns his plays. He's quick, very quick, I think he's the quickest linebacker we've got. He's just got to learn his plays and get everything down pat and play with confidence. He's huge. He looks like he can play football."
Most observers expect teams to attack Sapp, to see if they can find a week link in the defense. While it is an obvious concern, Munnerlyn downplayed how the change in strategy might impact the Gamecocks.
"Teams might do that, but we've got to step it up," he shrugged. "Marvin has to make plays so they won't run the ball at him and they'll be scared to come his way. I feel like he is going to pick it up this week, go out there against Mississippi State and show the world what he's got."
For their part, the Gamecocks do not plan on making any significant changes to their defensive schemes to accommodate Sapp. Munnerlyn thinks the only challenge will come from players who have had to shift positions in the past few weeks to accommodate injuries.
It was somewhat unusual for Munnerlyn to have to answer so many questions about the front seven, since, as he put it, "We're separate from the front seven." Although there have been lineup changes in the secondary, particularly at safety, they have been lucky enough to be able to rotate in players with some experience.
"In the secondary, our leaders are our safeties," Munnerlyn explained. "They tell the corners what to do. They read the defense, they get in their playbooks, they break it down for the corners and give us signals.
"It really doesn't matter what safety you put back there because all them know what to do, all of them know the plays, and all of them can play football. It goes with experience too. I don't think you can put a freshman back there at safety and tell him to do this and do that without him messing up the cornerbacks with calls and stuff."
Against a Mississippi State squad that comes in playing their best football in years, that experience and confidence will be needed to secure a win on Saturday afternoon.
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