Super sophomores lead the way on defense
Just days before the Gamecocks' season opener, starting strong safety Emanuel Cook was arrested for unlawful possession of a pistol. He was immediately suspended from school and the team. Subsequently, Cook was placed in the hospital just days later where he underwent an emergency appendectomy. At the time, there was some doubt Cook would even suit up in the garnet and black this season. However, Cook was proven to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, as he was reinstated to the University, recovered from his surgery in just two weeks, and now 28 tackles later the sophomore is one of the unquestioned leaders of a young Gamecock defense that is only going to get better. After racking up four tackles in his return for the Georgia game, Cook has stepped his game up to levels not previously seen from him, averaging eight tackles over the last three contests.
Of the Gamecocks 11 starters on defense, five are true sophomores signed in the 2006 recruiting class, and looking at the list of leading tacklers on the South Carolina defense, it reads: Eric Norwood (30 tackles), Emanuel Cook (28), Rodney Paulk (27), Darian Stewart (25).
All are sophomores, all are playmakers, and all four are former three-star prospects, according to Scout.com.
The face of the Gamecock defense through the first five games of the 2007 campaign has been the defensive end, Norwood. The 6-0, 264 pound Kennesaw, GA product did not have the measureables many college coaches look for, but the South Carolina staff saw an athletic kid with a motor that never stopped, and a guy who was arguably a few inches short of being rated a five-star prospect. Norwood was once committed to Oklahoma State but eventually signed with the Gamecocks over offers from Arkansas, Auburn, and Boston College, among others.He has not disappointed as a college player, and is one South Carolina's best overall players.
Norwood's freshman year in Columbia, he showed a natural ability to get to the quarterback and led the team in sacks as a pass rushing specialist. Now a year older and more experienced, the relentless lineman has become a complete player, leading the team in tackles and sacks (3), as well as providing a spark when the team needs it most as an emotional leader in the absence of Jasper Brinkley. Norwood has been all over the field and has excelled rushing the passer, as well as in run support, while also showing his versatility by playing in space as a hybrid linebacker in certain situations. That versatility may be what gets Norwood his chance at playing in the NFL as a linebacker in a 3-4 scheme down the road. Also as part of Coach Spurrier's initiative to get his best players on the field on special teams, the playmaker made his presence known with a game-changing blocked punt in South Carolina's homecoming win over Mississippi State.
Rodney Paulk took a different path to the University of South Carolina than the out-of-state Norwood, as he hails from Columbia, SC. The hard-nosed linebacker chose to stay at home and play for the Gamecocks over offers from North Carolina and Virginia Tech. His choice paid him immediate dividends, as he logged significant snaps as a freshman in defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix's defense, playing in all 13 games while sharing time with then-sophomore Marvin Sapp. Now as the team's starting strongside linebacker, Paulk has nearly racked up as many tackles in just five games this year as he did all of last season (37).
While Norwood, Cook, and Paulk were already being counted on as contributors prior to the fall, safety Darian Stewart was a relatively unknown commodity entering the 2007 season. Many who follow recruiting thought the Gamecocks had gotten a steal when they signed the Huntsville, AL product in the 2006 class, but Stewart did not show that potential early, racking up only seven tackles in limited time as a true freshman. The 5-11, 215 pound sophomore showed signs of being a standout player in the Gamecocks' annual Garnet and Black Spring Game, but he truly had his coming out party in South Carolina's road win over Georgia, as he was all over the field in an amazing nine-tackle performance. Following the breakout performance, Stewart has been a solid contributor on the Gamecock defense and collected his first career interception to help seal a victory against Mississippi State Saturday.
Not on the list of top-tacklers, but also not forgotten is sophomore cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. The 5-9, 180 pound Mobile, AL product first impressed the South Carolina coaches with the physical play and no-nonsense attitude he brought to the cornerback position. As an undersized true freshman, Munnerlyn showed no reservations in going against taller Gamecock receivers like the 6-4 Sidney Rice in practice. The speedster's persistent in-your-face style of play got him on the field early and often as he logged significant snaps and two interceptions a season ago. Five games into the 2007 campaign, Munnerlyn, as confident as ever and with a better understanding of the defense, brings the same style of play, as well as tremendous recovery speed and ball skills to the South Carolina secondary. The sensational sophomore has been a warrior on the defensive side of the ball, as well as bringing a rare threat to take it to the house as a Gamecock punt returner. Munnerlyn has also led by example, as he has seemingly been banged up in every game, but keeps coming back for more despite having to play in pain. Many teams have challenged the smaller Munnerlyn with tall receivers, but few have succeeded.
Steve Spurrier's 2007 signing class may have been widely acclaimed as the best class to ever enter the University of South Carolina, but the 2006 class may prove to be just as important in the Gamecocks' rise to the top of the SEC. The five aforementioned sophomores are a big reason the secondary is ranked number one in the country, and the entire defense has improved from a season ago. It's hard to imagine where the Gamecock defense would be without the contributions of the five sophomores. Perhaps just as encouraging as the play of the five second-year players this season is the thought of the defense's future potential. While the 2007 season is shaping up to be special in its own right, the 2008 South Carolina defense will return 10 of 11 starters. They will also get back senior defensive end Jordin Lindsey, who is sitting out this season for academic reason, and defensive tackle Nathan Pepper as well as All-SEC linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who are both out for the remainder of the season with knee injuries. The sky is truly the limit for the South Carolina defense in the next few years.
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