Spring wrap-up: Safety
The conversation at safety has to begin with All-SEC hit-man Emanuel Cook. While Cook has battled an array of injuries including a broken hand that kept him out of the latter part of spring practice, the battle-tested safety always seems to fight through adversity and has earned the well-deserved respect of his teammates. Overlooked by the major in-state Florida powers due to his size, Cook has been a consistent performer since stepping on the field his freshman season, collecting 139 career tackles and a team-leading 92 tackles last season. Known for his sure tackling, Cook stepped up his pass-defending skills last year also snatching three interceptions. Despite missing the Garnet and Black game, Cook is undoubtedly the starter at strong safety and barring injury will find himself on many All-SEC lists again following the 2008 campaign.
While not receiving as much publicity as Cook, starting free safety Darian Stewart has quietly turned into the type player who could contend for All-SEC honors this year as well. Ron Cooper dug into Alabama to find the safety and proved once again why he is one of the best talent evaluators in the country. After a quiet freshman season, Stewart exploded onto the scene with a nine-tackle performance at Georgia and went on last year to collect two interceptions and 68 tackles, good for third on the team. Stewart built on his breakout season with an even more impressive showing this spring. The junior seemed to be a step quicker, read plays faster, and showed a break on the ball he didn't seem to have a year ago, making him an even better fit for his free safety spot.
Stewart's progress did not go unnoticed by the coaches as he was named the Joe Morrison defensive MVP of the spring. Like Cook, at 5'11", 218 pounds, Stewart has the size to come up and play the run as well, and even plays a hybrid linebacker/defensive back spot in USC's dime package.
While Stewart and Cook may be one of the better duos of returning safeties in the conference, the big question entering spring practice was, what would happen if either went down to injury? USC defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson got his answer when within a couple days of each other then-wide receivers Mark Barnes and Chris Culliver both requested a move to defense. While both will need to continue to learn the defense in the offseason, the moves undoubtedly helped to shore up the depth at safety. The moves also served to balance out the depth chart at two positions as the wide receiver depth chart had become somewhat heavy and the safety chart light.
Barnes, a natural safety in high school at Columbia's RNE, wanted a chance in Steve Spurrier's offense, but saw the chance for playing time on the other side of the ball this spring. Barnes' move quickly paid off as the rangy safety moved from third string to second within a few practices. With Cook and Stewart resting injuries during the spring game, Barnes showed his natural instincts and ball-skills, collecting two interceptions and a handful of tackles. For Barnes the main question for how effective he can be is not about talent, but about health. A nagging shoulder injury has bothered him since his high school days, and while it hasn't affected him to this point, he and the coaches are hoping he can stay healthy.
Culliver's move has worked out equally as well as Barnes' did. While the Garner, NC standout is not as far along in his development at safety as Barnes, he was able to provide some fireworks of his own in the spring game. After collecting five tackles on the day, Culliver capped off his performance with an 83-yard fumble-return which ended in a front flip into the end zone.
After the failed Culliver experiment on offense, many wondered if he was just an athlete playing football, and not necessarily a football player. Culliver's physical play and ability to attack the football have quickly quelled those thoughts as the former four-star prospect has a bright future ahead of him. Culliver will enter fall as the second string free safety and will also more than likely return kickoffs.
Junior safety Chris Hail also had an impressive spring game showing, racking up tackles all over the field as well as picking off a pass. Hail has seen just spot duty so far in his career bouncing around from wide receiver to cornerback and safety. The Lovejoy, GA native has just 11 tackles to his credit in his career, but will provide upperclassman depth for the Gamecocks this year. While Culliver and Barnes have more upside, Hail has been around the program longer and may beat out one of them for a second string spot. Regardless of whether Hail is second or third on the depth chart, the USC defense will likely rotate a lot of guys and Hail should be in that rotation.
Freshman Antonio Allen went through his first spring practice as a Gamecock after spending a semester at Fork Union last fall. While Allen would have been forced into action this year prior to the Culliver and Barnes position changes, he may now get the chance to redshirt. For Allen to see the field this year he will have to have an incredible offseason and show a strong command for the defense in the fall. There is also the chance the bone-crushing safety could make the move to linebacker. Allen has a long frame and is a great tackler so the move could suit his strengths. If he does go to linebacker, Allen will definitely redshirt this season and contend for a spot on the two-deep at outside linebacker next season.
Freshman Jay Spearman, who graduated from Greenwood High School in December and enrolled at USC in January, played both safety and cornerback this spring, but missed most of the practices due to injury. The converted-quarterback will more than likely redshirt to learn the new position and the defensive schemes.
Incoming freshmen Darrell Simmons and Jarrett Burns will join the fold this summer, and like Spearman and Allen, he might have been forced into action prior to the position changes. Unless either absolutely blows the coaches away, they will have the chance to redshirt and contend next year. With a lack of depth at linebacker likely to be a problem in the coming seasons, there is also the chance Simmons starts out at linebacker and uses the year to bulk up.
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