Read below as GamecockAnthem.com takes a look at the key contributions of fifteen underclassmen during USC's 2007 football season, showing the nucleus of young talent that the Gamecocks will return in 2008:
1. So. – S Emanuel Cook
While early legal trouble and an emergency appendectomy almost kept Cook's season from ever happening, the 5-10, 216 pound sophomore rebounded to have the best year for a USC safety since Ko Simpson roamed the USC defensive backfield. Cook had a solid freshman year in 2006, but he built on that success to lead the team in tackles with 92, including eight tackles-for-loss, and four sacks on his way to the coaches' All-SEC list this fall. The hard-hitting safety has become a veteran leader on a young defense by making multiple big plays on the year. Some of Cook's best moments were a nine-tackle performance against then No. 8 ranked Kentucky, a big fourth down stop against Mississippi State, and a huge interception at the goal line against Clemson that kept the Gamecocks in the game. Carolina fans can expect more good things from #21 as he returns as a proven leader of what will be a much more experienced defense next year.
2. So. - DE Eric Norwood
Another defensive leader from Spurrier's 2006 signing class, Norwood came up with big play after big play in what was a huge season for the sophomore pass rusher. Norwood's most memorable moments may have come when he returned two fumbles for touchdown in front of a national ESPN audience against Kentucky, but Norwood had just as big a game against Mississippi State when his third quarter punt block changed the entire complexion of the game. The high-motor defender improved as an overall player from his freshman year when he was only a pass rusher to come in second on the team in tackles with 69 this year. The Georgia-native also led the team in sacks with six. Looking ahead to next year, the 6-0, 260 pound playmaker will benefit most from a big run-stopper like Jarriel King or Jordin Lindsey playing opposite him so that he can do more of what he does best: rush the quarterback.
3. So. - CB Captain Munnerlyn
4. Fr. - DT Ladi Ajiboye
The first true freshman to show up on our list, Ajiboye found himself in the starting lineup early in the 2007 slate and never relinquished his spot, putting together an extremely productive freshman campaign. The freshman All-SEC performer collected 39 tackles, including three for loss and three sacks from his defensive tackle spot. While defensive tackle is not exactly a glamour position in the first place, it is even harder for a freshman to make a splash there in the SEC which makes Ajiboye's numbers even more impressive. The 6-1, 294 pound Georgia-native has an extremely bright future ahead of him and will likely be a four-year starter on the Gamecocks' defensive line.
5. Fr. - WR Dion Lecorn
6. So. - S Darian Stewart
Stewart is the third sophomore defensive back to make the list and another reason the USC secondary was ranked as one of the top units in the nation for much of the year. After a quiet freshman year, Stewart burst on the scene during his sophomore year with an incredible nine-tackle effort against Georgia. The 5-11, 215 pound safety would then go on to collect 68 tackles and two interceptions on the season. While his teammate, Cook, is getting most of the publicity, Stewart has All-SEC potential as well and will be a big part of the Gamecocks' defense next year.
7. RS So. – TE Jared Cook
8. RS Fr. - DT Kenrick Ellis
Ellis would not have even made this list had the season ended two games earlier, but after a strong close to the season, including a five-tackle performance from his defensive tackle spot against Clemson, Ellis now finds himself in the top ten. While Ellis had just 11 tackles during limited action on the season, his inspired performance against Clemson puts him in position to be a run-stopping force on the defensive line next year, which is what the defense desperately needed this season.
9. RS Fr. - QB Chris Smelley
10. So. - LB Rodney Paulk
Paulk may not have the same hype or measurables as the Gamecocks' other young linebackers, but the sophomore Columbia, SC-native did rack up 64 tackles despite playing banged up for most of the season. Paulk has played a lot during his first two years at South Carolina and will need to continue to work hard in the weight room this offseason. He will have a chance to step into more of a leadership role as a veteran junior next year.
11. RS Fr. – OG Heath Batchelor
12. Fr. - LB Cliff Matthews
Matthews was able to adjust to his outside linebacker spot and collect 26 tackles, including two for loss on the year. The 6-4, 234 pound, Cheraw, SC-native showed incredible athleticism and a willingness to learn which allowed him to garner so much playing time as a true freshman. It will be interesting to see if the coaches believe outside linebacker is Matthews best position or if they will move him back to defensive end this spring, where he was a 5-star prospect coming out of high school.
13. Fr. - TE Weslye Saunders
14. Fr. - LB Melvin Ingram
After the LSU game, Ingram found himself in the unenviable position of teaming with Marvin Sapp to help try and replace the irreplaceable. After Jasper Brinkley went down for the season, Ingram was forced into early playing time, and despite some growing pains, was able to collect 15 tackles, including a tackle-for-loss and a sack. Ingram is the kind of jumbo linebacker the South Carolina defense needs, and with a year of progress, he should be a big time playmaker for USC next season.
15. Fr. – WR/KR Chris Culliver
While some may be ready to move Culliver to defense, I'm not ready to give up on the Chris Culliver experiment just yet. The freshman speedster failed to log a catch on the season, but that had more to do with Culliver not knowing the offense yet, than a lack of physical ability. A spring practice could be just what the NC-native needs to become the breakaway threat the Steve Spurrier offense has lacked during his first three seasons here. Culliver's 809 kickoff return yards on the season were also the second-highest total in school history.
Honorable mention: Travian Robertson, Freddie Brown, Moe Brown, Garrett Anderson, Lemuel Jeanpierre, Gerrod Sinclair, Seaver Brown, Patrick Dimarco, Clifton Geathers, Addison Williams.
To discuss this article, visit GamecockAnthem's premium forum - The Golden Spur.