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July 19, 2006

Three new starters means fresh start for 'backers

The following is the sixth in a series of position previews.

When it comes to South Carolina's linebacker corps, the upcoming season will mark a new beginning.

With all three starters having graduated, all we know for sure right now is that junior college transfer Jasper Brinkley (6-foot-2, 250 pounds) will probably start at middle linebacker.

The two outside spots are, as Steve Spurrier recently suggested, one huge question mark.

All of the changes at linebacker doesn't faze USC defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix.

"It's something you can't control, so I'm going to coach them up as best I can and let them go play on Saturday," Nix said. "But that's nothing new. When a guy goes down with an injury, someone has to step up. It's a challenge. I hope the players respond to the challenge. I expect (the linebackers) to be a better unit then we were a year ago."

Brinkley - who spent the last two seasons at Georgia Military College - caught the attention of Spurrier and the rest of the Gamecocks coaches with his aggressive style of play during spring practice.

"I really like how aggressive our defense is and how physical we play," Brinkley said. "I think I will fit in very nicely."

In fact, Brinkley was so intense and aggressive at times this spring the USC coaches had to plead with him to tone it down. You can be assured the USC coaches won't complain about Brinkley hitting too hard once the games start.

Brinkley's brother - Casper - also signed with the Gamecocks as a defensive end.

Jasper will bring some much-needed size and speed to a position in a league where middle linebackers are typically large and run like the wind.

"(Brinkley) is a tough, good-looking inside linebacker. He looks like those linebackers that play at Georgia and Tennessee and those other places. He has a good chance to help us," Spurrier said.

The battle for the two outside linebacker spots will be fierce among six players. Redshirt freshman Gerrod Sinclair and sophomore Marvin Sapp are currently listed as the starters on the summer depth chart but don't be surprised if either one is unseated prior to the season opener.

"Everything is day-to-day," Nix said. "We're looking for guys who will perform consistently at the level we expect them to. Our schemes are pretty good. We do need to tackle better and learn to play our assignments every snap. I feel better about it now than I did at the end of last season."

Sinclair, who signed with USC out of Mandarin High School in Jacksonville, Fla., played well this spring and has added about 20 pounds to his frame since signing with the Gamecocks.

Sapp appeared headed for a redshirt season last year before USC's defensive difficulties early in the season forced him to assume a starting role beginning with the Troy game. He finished with 23 tackles in nine games, an encouraging start for someone who many felt coming out of high school was too small to play linebacker in the SEC.

Sapp showed a willingness in the spring to improve on his weaknesses.

"I've had three different coaches at linebacker since I've been here," Sapp said. "The good thing is I have more experience at reading offenses and running defenses and making checks. I know I have to get better. I'm glad I played last season. The things I need to work on the most are my footwork and pass coverage recognition."

Neither Sinclair or Sapp can rest on their laurels. Behind them on the depth chart is sophomore Dakota Walker, who overcame a serious staph infection in his left knee last August to tie for the team lead with 3.5 sacks.

He collected 13 tackles as a defensive end.

After the injury, Walker considered redshirting but, like Sapp, was inserted into the lineup for the Troy game and never looked back. He made two of the biggest defensive plays of the game against Arkansas with a critical sack and a stop on fourth-down inside the red zone that sealed the bowl-clinching win.

Walker now must make the transformation from defensive end to outside linebacker. He possesses the size and speed to wreck havoc on opponents, especially in passing situations.

Another redshirt freshman who will make his presence felt is Brent Davis from Daytona, Fla. Davis impressed the coaches so much in the spring that Nix placed him on the first-team defense upon the conclusion of spring practice.

Davis showed a serious nose for the football in high school with 334 tackles over his final two seasons at Mainland High School and helped it capture the state championship.

"Brent has done what we've asked him to do," Nix said. "He did a good job (in the spring) rushing the passer and in coverage."

Curtis Rice, a junior, is listed behind Brinkley at middle linebacker on the summer depth chart. Rice has seen sporadic duty since signing out of Union High School in 2003. He made eight tackles last season and saw more playing time as the season progressed.

Sophomore Yvan Banag spent most of last season with the secondary before moving to linebacker prior to the bowl game. He responded with an impressive effort against Missouri, totaling four of his nine tackles in that game. He appeared in all 12 games, mostly on special teams.

If there is one player who has taken a dive on the depth chart since the conclusion of last season, it's Cody Wells, who has gone from occasional starter to third-team on the depth chart.

Wells enjoyed a solid season in 2005, finishing with 31 tackles, including a pair of sacks, in two starts. He suffered a knee injury in the victory over the Razorbacks and missed the remainder of the season.

By the time spring practice ended, Wells had started to slip on the depth chart. He is now buried behind Sinclair and Walker and will have to battle hard in fall camp in order to see the field this season.

"We're trying to give everybody a chance and some of the other guys graded better (than Wells) in the scrimmages," Nix said. "Nothing is written in stone. Whoever performs the best will have a chance to be the starter."

Freshman Rodney Paulk from Richland Northeast High School was a tackling machine in high school. He collected an astounding 174 tackles - an average of 11.7 per game - and 13 sacks as a senior and helped lead the Cavaliers to the Class 4A, Division II championship game.

While Paulk will most likely end up at outside linebacker, he could line up on the inside as well.

"They've been talking about playing me at outside linebacker but they could also move me inside," Paulk said. "There's still a question as to which position I'll be playing. If I play outside, I'll be in pass coverage more. In high school, I was more of a run-stopper. I'm still thinking about which position I want. Whichever one they play me at, I'll do my best at that position."

Paulk has shown a strong work ethic this summer, joining the veteran Gamecock players for summer workouts shortly after his high school graduation. His willingness to work hard impressed Spurrier, who recently suggested Paulk could even start.

"I'm glad that Coach Spurrier is going to give me the opportunity as a freshman to come in and start right away," Paulk said. "Now it's my time to take advantage of it by going out there and performing well. I feel I'm ready. We'll see when the time comes."

Another true freshman arrival is Vandaral Shackleford from Riverdale, Ga. He was ranked as the No. 37 outside linebacker prospect in the nation and was honored as the Metro Atlanta Defensive Player of the year after leading his high school with 120 tackles.

Shackleford - who declined a scholarship offer from Georgia - knows he has a ways to go if he wants to see the field next season. As a result, a redshirt season is very likely for the former honor roll student and winner of the Math Excellence award at Riverdale High School.

"I need to get better with my tackling techniques," Shackleford said. "I also need to get stronger and faster and improve my on-field awareness. I'm a big fan of Coach (Tyrone) Nix. He has a lot to teach me."

PROBABLE STARTERS: Jasper Brinkley (MLB), Dakota Walker (OLB), Marvin Sapp (OLB).

RESERVES: Gerrod Sinclair, Cody Wells, Brent Davis, Yvan Banag, Curtis Rice, Rodney Paulk.

PROJECTED REDSHIRTS: Vandaral Shackleford.

WALK-ONS: Marcus Davis, John Guerry, Cody Lucas, Rahmel Walker.

Other in-depth position previews:

Cook(ing) up something tasty at tight end
Defensive line trying to find weight balance
Rice looking to top spectacular freshman season
White will anchor inexperienced offensive line
Gamecock backfield primed for success
Pressure's on Bennett to lead youthful secondary
Battle to become Mitchell's backup will be fierce

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