Wharton's a nice guy ... OFF the field

Travelle Wharton is a menace to opponents on the football field, but he has a compassionate and sympathetic heart off the field.

South Carolinaís offensive tackle, an All-America candidate, is equally renowned for his service to struggling youth in the Columbia area. An active member of the school's ''Team Gamecocks'' community service program, Wharton strives to aid high school students by providing sound advice and encouragement to those who might stray down the wrong path in life.

Since joining the Gamecocks three years ago, Wharton has spent many hours counseling students on making the right decisions and the importance of education. Itís a duty he takes seriously.

''I am active in the community,'' he said. ''It's important to me. I do a lot in Columbia and at home (Fountain Inn, S.C.). I go to the schools and visit. I talk to the younger kids. I try to help juveniles with problems. Itís a blessing.''

Wharton is a good example of what hard work and determination can achieve. He was forced to sit out his freshman year due to academic problems. After correcting his own problems -- he is now set to graduate on time -- Wharton decided he didn't want to see others waste their opportunities.

Wharton considered entering the NFL draft early, but chose to remain in college in order to get his degree. A strong family upbringing provides the motivation for Wharton, who sees far too many kids brought up in poor environments with little proper guidance. He stresses staying in school while avoiding the perils of drugs and other criminal behavior.

''I try to go back to the guys in my neighborhood and tell them to do the right things,'' he said. ''I try to help as many as possible. I am not sure how many I have touched, but I keep trying. I want to change peopleís lives. That's how my mom raised me. I don't expect anything in return.''

It's a calling Wharton hopes to continue after college, even if a professional football career is in the offing.

''I want to keep coming back and helping,'' he said. ''I want to help in the community, whether it be football related or in life. I want to be active.''

Meanwhile, Wharton will concentrate on helping the Gamecocks become a more productive offense. His performance will go a long way in determining how effective South Carolina's attack is.

A big test for the Gamecocks comes Saturday against Tennessee at Neyland Stadium.

South Carolina has experienced quarterback problems early in the season. Starter Dondrial Pinkins has struggled at times and must improve if the Gamecocks are to be competitive in the Southeastern Conference.

''We haven't been consistent,'' Wharton said. ''We have looked good at times, but we need to play complete games. The problem has been a little bit of everything. You can't put it all on one thing. It all has to click for us to be successful. The whole offense has to get the job done.''

Wharton has done his part ever since taking over as a starting tackle in 2000. He helped the Gamecocks rank near the top of the SEC in rushing that season and earned Freshman All-American honors after starting 10 of 12 games.

Jefferson Pilot TV analyst Dave Rowe said Wharton reminded him of longtime NFL standout Art Shell. Wharton has steadily improved since then. He is an All-America candidate this season and is on the Outland Trophy watch list.

''I have been playing all right so far,'' he said. ''But my standards are real high. I can definitely improve. I don't have any individual goals. I just want to help the team. Individual goals are secondary. I am just trying to lead the younger guys.''

After a tough loss to Georgia, the Gamecocks rebounded with a big win over Alabama-Birmingham. Offensive improvement is still required, though, if South Carolina is to have a chance against the Vols. Consistency from the quarterback position is a must.

''Pinkins is doing a good job,'' Wharton said. ''I am confident in him. We have to keep encouraging him and give him the time he needs to make plays. He is coming along.''

Backup quarterbacks Bennett Swygert and Blake Mitchell are battling Pinkins for playing time.

''I am not sure how the rotation will go, but Pinkins is the starter right now,'' Wharton said.

The Gamecocks first experience with a top-flight SEC foe this season was not a pleasant one. Saturday's experience could be worse if South Carolina is below peak performance.

''We didnít play well in our first road game at Georgia, and now we have to go to Tennessee,'' South Carolina coach Lou Holtz said. ''I don't know what to expect. This week will be difficult for us at Tennessee. Beating Florida on the road was impressive. They are in the top five in scoring defense and rush defense and have allowed only 2.0 yards per carry. That's unbelievable when you consider the schedule they have played.''

The relentless praise from Holtz didnít stop there.

''They have two running backs who are first and fifth in the conference in rushing and they average over 200 yards per game,'' he said. ''Their offensive line is very good and all are about 300 pounds and very athletic. Tennessee always has good receivers and then you go to the quarterback, Casey Clausen, who has hurt us over the years by making some big plays. He is an excellent competitor and fine quarterback.''

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