South Carolina defense

With his offense sputtering all season, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier relied heavily on his defense in 2008. He may not have that luxury in 2009.

The Gamecocks must replace three-fourths of a secondary that helped them rank No. 2 nationally in pass defense last fall at just 159.2 yards per game.

Gone are strong safety Emanuel Cook, cornerback Stoney Woodson and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. All three were juniors who elected to turn pro rather than utilize their senior seasons of collegiate eligibility. Cook, in particular, will be missed. He led the team with 87 tackles last fall.

The lone returnee from last year's starting secondary is junior free safety Chris Culliver, who recorded 50 stops in 2008.

Replacing Cook at strong safety will be Darian Stewart, a 5-11, 216-pounder who registered 64 stops and 9 tackles for loss a year ago playing the "spur," a hybrid safety/linebacker position. Freshman Stephon Gilmore and sophomore Akeem Auguste are penciled in as the new starters at the corner spots.

A quality secondary wasn't the only reason South Carolina allowed so few passing yards last fall, however. There are two others that figured prominently.

First, the Gamecocks' pass rush flustered opposing quarterbacks by recording 31 sacks and 31 hurries.

Secondly, opponents enjoyed enough success running the ball that they weren't inclined to throw an awful lot. The Gamecocks allowed 132.7 rushing yards per game and 23 rushing touchdowns, compared to only 9 passing TDs.

The rushing defense could struggle again in 2009, due to the departure of middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley and his 65 tackles from a year ago. He's being replaced by Rodney Paulk, who recorded just 5 stops before suffering a 2008 knee injury.

On a positive note, Carolina returns a potential All-American in weakside linebacker Eric Norwood. A first-team All-SEC selection in 2007 and 2008, he recorded 75 tackles and 9 sacks last fall.

On paper, Carolina's defensive front looks to be solid. Junior Clifton Geathers (6-8, 281) recorded 29 stops and 2.5 sacks last fall, while junior Cliff Matthew (6-4, 249) notched 32 stops and 1.5 sacks at the other end. Senior Nathan Pepper (6-1, 300) registered 23 tackles and a sack, while fellow tackle Travian Robertson (6-4, 238) was logging 17 stops but no sacks.

Carolina's defense should be helped by good special teams. Kicker Ryan Succop is gone after nailing 20 of 30 field-goal tries last fall but punter Spencer Lanning is back after averaging 42.1 yards per kick a year ago. The Cocks also boast one of the SEC's better kickoff return men in Chris Culliver, who averaged 24.1 yards a year ago.

Bottom line: Minus Brinkley at middle linebacker and three-fourths of the 2008 secondary, Carolina's defense could struggle in 2009, especially if the Gamecock offense is as lame as it was the last half of last season.


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