Young talent will carry USC into the future

While South Carolina's season did not end the way USC fans had hoped, the Gamecocks will return a roster filled with young, experienced talent next fall. Through the careful recruitment of certain high profile players and the excellent evaluation of other under-the-radar prospects, Steve Spurrier has quietly amassed what could be the most young talent that has ever joined together in Columbia, SC.

Read below as 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

Captain Munnerlyn
Lockdown cornerbacks can be invaluable to a defensive coordinator, and Munnerlyn has quickly blossomed into one. Short in stature, but not in heart or attitude, Munnerlyn did not take long to get noticed when he first stepped onto the practice field as a freshman, and that strong play has continued throughout his two seasons with the Gamecocks. Munnerlyn, who suffered a season ending foot injury against Arkansas this fall, collected 47 tackles on the season including two for loss while adding three interceptions. The 5-9, 180 pound sophomore should return healthy next year to help anchor a secondary that's expected to once again be one of the SEC's best.

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

Dion Lecorn
Another true freshman, Lecorn took a little bit longer than Ajiboye to find his way into the South Carolina starting lineup. The 5-11, 208 pound wide receiver spent much of the first half of the season on the bench expecting to redshirt. After catching the coaches' eyes with his tenacious blocking in practice, Lecorn was inserted into the starting lineup for the Mississippi State game. The young Florida-native would explode onto the scene at Arkansas to the tune of eight catches for 109 yards and never look back as one of the key ingredients that jump-started the USC offense late in the season. Lecorn went on to catch 27 ball for 315 yards and three TDs as a valuable complement to leading receiver Kenny McKinley. Though Lecorn's running-mate is flirting with the idea of the NFL draft, should McKinley return next year, he and Lecorn will team up with a horde of other young talent to form what could be one of the better receiving corps in the SEC.

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

Jared Cook
The 6-5, 236 pound tight end finally began to come into his own during his redshirt sophomore year. After an inconsistent RS freshman year, Cook was the Gamecocks' third leading receiver bringing in 30 passes for 431 yards and three touchdowns. While Cook was held without a catch against Clemson, he did close out the Gamecocks' SEC schedule on a strong note with a combined 13 catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns against Tennessee, Arkansas, and Florida. The most exciting thing about Cook for Gamecock fans is he has only somewhat tapped into his limitless potential. With more talent in the receiving corps around him, look for Cook to have an even better year next year.

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

Chris Smelley
The Smelley hype may have died down after the RS freshman quarterback gave way to fifth-year senior Blake Mitchell for the last quarter of the season, but don't give up on the young signal-caller yet. Smelley put up good numbers in his starts, throwing for 1176 yards and nine touchdowns while completing 92 of 162 passes. The Alabama-native should enter spring practice as the clear number one quarterback. It will be Smelley's third year in Spurrier's system, and with the experience he earned this year he should be ready to run the show. It is also important to remember how much Blake Mitchell improved during his time under Spurrier's tutelage.

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

Heath Batchelor
Batchelor came out of nowhere late in the season to help solidify an offensive line that had struggled for much of the year. While the 6-7, 304 pound right guard is not as polished as he one day will be, his raw strength and aggressive mindset proved to be just what the interior of the line needed. While Batchelor was the perfect temporary fix for the offensive line, don't be surprised to see him make the move to right tackle and earn a starting spot there next season.

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

Weslye Saunders
Saunders had an up and down season with some incredible highlights and some equally frustrating freshman lowlights. There was, however, no doubt of Saunders unlimited potential as the 6-5, 280 pound tight end reeled in 12 catches for 151 yards, just good enough to make the freshman All-American team. Saunders must continue to work on his blocking and improve his conditioning, but he showed uncanny speed for a guy his size and soft hands, both of which should make him a big time threat in the Gamecocks' offense in the future.

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.

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