Spring wrap-up: Linebacker
Senior linebacker Jasper Brinkley has been the face of the Gamecocks' linebacking corps since arriving via Georgia Military Academy in the spring of 2006. Brinkley, who would have been selected in the NFL draft Saturday had he stayed healthy last season, suffered a season-ending LCL injury in week four against LSU and was granted another season in the Garnet and Black by the NCAA.
Despite not participating in any full-contact work, Brinkley looked to be near full speed during the spring, and participated in all of the teams' non-contact drills. While it still remains to be seen if Brinkley can be every bit as productive as he was prior to the injury, the hard-nosed ‘backer will be welcomed back into the USC starting lineup as a player his teammates respect and a team leader. With a more talented defensive line in front of him than in years past, if Brinkley is indeed healthy, he will have the chance to make a ton of tackles in Johnson's scheme and play his way into the NFL. Brinkley will provide the run-stuffing force in the middle the team sorely lacked after he went down last year.
The biggest move of the spring came when Johnson elected to move former All-SEC defensive end Eric Norwood to weakside linebacker to play alongside Brinkley. According to Johnson, Norwood's versatility and natural ability to play in space allowed him to make the move which let sophomore Cliff Matthews move back to his natural position at defensive end. Norwood has taken the move in stride and looked natural at his new position despite not playing there since high school. For the move to truly pay off, though, the 270-pound workout warrior will have to use the summer conditioning program to slim down to the 255-pound range and maximize his potential at the new position. Norwood and Brinkley will give the Gamecocks two starting linebackers over 250 pounds, something few teams can claim.
While not as productive as Brinkley and Norwood in his career so far, junior Gerrod Sinclair has the chance to break out this year. Sinclair has always had the speed, and at 234 pounds now looks like a true SEC linebacker. The Jacksonville, Fla. native has battled nagging injuries for much of his South Carolina career, while compiling 16 career tackles. Sinclair got his chance this spring and took full advantage of being listed as the first string strongside linebacker, holding onto that title throughout spring practice. One thing that sets Sinclair apart from other players is his willingness to continue learning the game as he has impressed Johnson and special teams coordinator Ray Rychleski by continuing to ask questions about situations and where he is supposed to be assignment-wise.
Sinclair rounds out a very talented starting trio of linebackers. If the Mandarin High School graduate can remain healthy then he should experience his most productive season as a Gamecock by far.
Behind the starters Rodney Paulk is a player Johnson seems to love. At 6-0, 226 pounds Paulk is not the biggest, nor the fastest, but just seems to be in the right spot at the right time. The former RNE star has experience and his 22 starts rank first on the team among juniors. Paulk is currently the backup to Brinkley at middle linebacker, but could realistically play all three spots at times. Paulk may never be an All-SEC caliber player, but the coaching staff will always know what they are getting with him. He racked up 64 tackles last season and has 100 tackles on his career. As probably the first linebacker off the bench Paulk will play a ton of minutes this year, and depending on how Sinclair performs in fall practice, he could find himself in the starting lineup against NC State.
A player the coaching staff has high hopes for one day is redshirt freshman Alonzo Winfield. Winfield impressed many with his blazing speed for a linebacker, and showed off his athleticism with an acrobatic interception in the Garnet and Black spring game. Despite all of his physical ability, the young linebacker failed to unseat the older Sinclair ahead of him and currently finds himself on the second string. The Winston-Salem, NC native has a huge upside and in a perfect world would probably benefit from having another year to learn, but with the lack of depth at linebacker the Gamecocks could really use him this year. There is still a long ways to go, but if Winfield could have a big offseason he could do wonders to bolster the one area on defense USC has depth concerns at.
Freshman Shaq Wilson is severely undersized and would have even still been in high school had he not graduated early, but that did not stop the First Coast grad. from sticking his nose into the race to see the field at linebacker. While a year to redshirt and get bigger would be beneficial for Wilson, the productive linebacker will likely find the field this season. At just 205 pounds right now Wilson needs to gain at the very least a solid 10 pounds this offseason to play in the SEC. Wilson is very active and the size USC has on the d-line could allow him to get loose and make some plays this year. Wilson is the type player who could play some this season and go on to be a three year starter.
The enigma of the linebacking corps. this spring was mammoth middle linebacker Melvin Ingram. With as much upside as perhaps any defender on the entire team, Ingram stepping up this offseason could turn what could be decent depth into great depth. Ingram showed some flashes as the spring went on, but at 270 pounds is just not as nimble as he needs to be, especially in pass coverage. A complete re-dedication to football this summer would go a long way for the Hamlet, NC native.
Coming out of high school, Ingram was considered the heir apparent to Brinkley, but if he can't lose the necessary weight he's likely destined for a move to the defensive line.
Seniors Marvin Sapp and Dustin Lindsey both missed the entire spring with injuries. Sapp filled in for Brinkley for much of last year and has started 33 games in his career, making 135 tackles. The Jacksonville, Fla. native will provide experienced depth at multiple positions. If Lindsey can get back to 100 percent, he can be a valuable commodity as a backup at middle linebacker or even a starter alongside Brinkley and Norwood. Lindsey simply has a nose for the football and when healthy had a big 2005 campaign, racking up 58 tackles. Juniors Vandaral Shackleford and Damien Wright round out the scholarship linebackers.
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