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I Wanna SEC You Up: The Gamecock Defense

Key to SC's hopes for a trip to Atlanta is a continually improving defense. The 'Cocks not only return 9 starters from last year's unit, they have a good bit of talent coming in, especially on the line. Last season's unit wasn't spectacularly effective, finishing in the bottom half of the conference in most categories:

Category Rank
Scoring Defense 6th
Pass Defense 8th
Rushing Defense 9th
Opponent 1st Downs 8th
Red Zone Defense 5th
Total Defense 9th

They managed to keep opponent's scoring low enough to keep things close (allowing only 18.7 ppg), but this year they should be able to win with defense as well as offense. 15 of the top 16 tacklers return, including All-SEC MLB Jasper Brinkley:

LB Jasper Brinkley
  Brinkley led all tacklers last season with 107 (5 sacks, 9.5 TFL), and returns for his senior season as an All-conference (and All-American?) candidate.
LB is an area that should be much improved over last year (as is the entire defensive front). The 'Cocks had to replace their top 4 LBs and their inexperience showed, but their entire two deep returns and Casper Brinkley, Jasper's twin brother, joins them on the outside after playing DE last year (he was fifth on the team with 44 tackles and second on the team with 13.5 TFL). Likely starting on the other side are Marvin Sapp, the second leading tackler with 51 (1 sack, 1 TFL), and Rodney Paulk, who had 36 tackles last year (1 sack, 2.5 TFL). Further illustrating the embarassment of riches at LB, former starter Cody Wells, who tore a bicep against Florida and missed the end of the season, is listed behind Pualk and Sapp, but should still see playing time.

And speaking of embarassment of riches, the line looks to be stacked with new blood this season, so much so that Casper Brinkley was moved to LB after starting every game last year at DE and Ryan Brown, who started eight games, was moved to FB. Highly touted DE recruits Clifton Geathers, Travian Robertson, and Jonathan Williams, along with Hargrave Military School transfer DT Ladi Ajiboye, all enrolled early to participate in spring drills and are expected to make an immediate impact for the 'Cocks. Ajiboye, rated the #21 prep school prospect by Rivals, was a clear stand out in the spring, and he'll be joined in the middle by returning starter Nathan Pepper.

While the secondary loses veteran CB Fred Bennett (2nd Team All-SEC), there is still plenty of starting experience in the backfield. Captain Munnerlyn, Stoney Woodson (led the team in picks with 3), and Carlos Thomas all return at CB. Though none could really be considered "stars" (yet), Munnerlyn in particular should develop into an excellent SEC corner after playing in 12 games last year (started five) as a freshman, especially with a stronger front seven to lean on. The safety positions are manned with experience as well, with the top two SS returning. Sr. Chris Hampton had 36 tkls and 2 picks last season, while Freshman All-SEC SS Emmanuel Cook had 47 tkls (5 for loss). The likely starter at FS is Brandon Isaac. Though he missed last season with an injury, he started two games in '05 at FS and also played CB.

As strange as it might seem for a Spurrier coached team, the defense could very well be the key to a great season for SC. Most have them pegged as a dark horse contender for the east because of the Evil Genius's offense as well as what should be a much improved D, though a brutal road schedule is what keeps them a "dark horse." Tomorrow we'll take a look at the schedule and see what needs to be done for the 'Cocks to get to Atlanta.