With so many questions on both sides of the ball leading into the South Carolina football season. I figured it would be a good time to throw together a top 10 of sorts. The following is a list from one to ten of my most integral players to the football squad's overall success heading into the 2009 campaign.
Well let's just be honest, this one was a gimme. In order for the Carolina football squad to have any sort of a shot in '09, number 40 needs to play and contribute in every game. The defense will be leaning on the SR for leadership and big plays to shore up the playmaking ability lost to the draft on that side of the ball in the offseason. It will be tough for Norwood to get his numbers this year with every offensive scheme being thought up with him solely in mind. However, the 6'1", 252 pound senior will need to at least match his All-SEC numbers from last year while opening up opportunities for his teammates if the Carolina defense is going to be a stout unit in '09.
Arguably the brightest crown jewel of Carolina's recruiting efforts last year, Gilmore will be thrown into the fire as a true freshman in the SEC. The 6"1,' 188 pounder will join a CB unit that was nearly depleted in the offseason by graduation and the NFL draft. The Parade All-American graduated early to get a full spring in for the Gamecocks. Gilmore and the coaches are mutually grateful. After a very strong spring Gilmore has sole possession of a starting corner spot and will be looked upon for big plays opposite of rising star DB Akeem Auguste. If the Gamecocks are to go anywhere in '09, the prep superstar will need to be as advertised in perhaps one of Carolina's most crucially thin positions.
After his well-documented early struggles at Carolina, fans and coaches alike were starting to question Garcia's motivation and focus. Last year, however, the light seemed to turn on for the 6'2", 219 pound sophomore. After coming into the game in Lexington, Kentucky against the Wildcats and leading the Gamecocks to victory it seemed as if Garcia was going to take Carolina into a golden sunset. Upset talk abounded every week and it was believed that Garcia would take the program into a promise land adorned with Clemson and bowl game victories. However, Garcia was just a freshman and was never allowed to get comfortable with Coach Spurrier keeping the QB position a revolving door for much of the year.
This year is a new year for number five and the Gamecocks as '09 offers Garcia both peace of mind and a full season of conditioning and practice. Everyone and their mother knows that Garcia is 'the' guy going into this season and with no real experience behind him, one has to assume that it's a full season commitment from Spurrier stronger than that of Tommy Beecher's from last year...
I promise five through ten aren't as obvious as one through four, but how can you put Stewart any lower than four on this particular list? One of the best DBs in the SEC against the run, the 5'11", 216 pound SR will be making the move from his SPUR position of last year to the more traditional strong safety spot. If all goes well with Alonzo Winfield and others holding down the SPUR position, Stewart will be let loose to lurk in the middle of the secondary. With some of the biggest hits I've seen in the past couple years, he could prove to be a real enforcer in coverage while also coming up to shut down runs and the screen game. The secondary will need 24's senior leadership and playmaking ability if they're going to come together and play as a unit.
A fan favorite and vocal leader, Brown will need to show up a little bit more on the field if he's going to help the Carolina passing attack. While the 6'0", 183 pound senior has shown flashes of being a big time playmaker, he has shown more frequent flashes of confusion and stone hands. However, Brown is one of the undisputed leaders of this football team and seems poised to carry his momentum from spring practice into the opener against N.C. State. If rising star Jason Barnes is to get open and make a difference this year, Brown will need to be a constant threat on the other side of the field. With plus speed, Brown could be a valuable deep threat for the Gamecocks and add another dimension to their passing game if he can take another step forward in '09.
Let's be honest Gamecock fans, the O-Line was terrible last year. No push or any sense of urgency at all, just kind of sat there. It is for that reason that I say if the offensive line woes are to turn around, it will begin and end this year with JKing on the field. The massive 6'5", 315 pounder will need to take his awareness and mean streak to a whole new level if the O-Line is to recover from being Spurrier's number one source of migraines from last year. The junior LT will need to put defenders on their backs every play all while keeping Stephen Garcia off of his. King's leadership will be crucial if the Carolina offensive unit as a whole is going to get it in gear this season.
When a coach as stubborn and prestigious as Steve Spurrier flat out says you should've played more the year before, I think it's safe to say you're an important part of the upcoming season. After coming to Carolina in the famed '07 recruiting class as a four star tailback, Maddox believed he was going to be given the opportunity to compete for a job right away. However after making a season of watching Mike Davis fall forward for two yards Maddox became understandably confused. His solution? Weights, and lots of 'em. Now with some encouraging words from his head coach to go along with his fine tuned 5'11", 224 pound frame, Maddox will look to punish defenders into the final minutes of each and every game. The junior's efforts will be an integral part of the running game's turn around in '09.
A rock inside, Nathan Pepper looks to be the stalwart of the Carolina D-Line in '09. At 6'1", 300 pounds, Pepper is a huge hole-filler inside for the interior D-Line. With great awareness and a nose for the football, the returning SR not only knows how to be in the right place at the right time, he knows what to do when he gets there. If the Carolina defensive line is going to be a cohesive unit, it will need to start from the inside out. Pepper will need to be the model of consistency and eat up blockers to allow the talented pass rushers on both ends to wreak havoc in the backfield. If Pepper hits his stride early, it could make Carolina a far better defense as the season progresses.
Whenever you lose a (technically) three-year starter, NFL caliber talent the likes of MLB Jasper Brinkley, his replacement is always a crucial player looking toward the next season. This case proves to be unique in the fact that the replacement is a redshirt junior who has seen significant playing time in his first two years on campus. Rodney Paulk came to the Gamecocks as an outside LB and earned Freshman All-SEC honors his first year on the job. After a quick derailment from playing time thanks to injury, the 6'0", 216 pound talent is back and ready for his first full time starting gig for the Carolina defense. With great lateral movement and closing speed, the nimble Paulk is a bit of a change of pace from the 260 pound Brinkley. However, fans and coaches alike hope the shot of speed in the middle will help against fast paced offenses such as Florida and Alabama. If Paulk is able to make a seamless transition to the inside, it could put Carolina's tandem of LBs in the elite of the SEC for the second straight year. The key for the redshirt JR will be for him to make his combination of below average size and plus speed work in his favor against the big, slow blockers of the SEC. If he can accomplish this easier said than done task, he could prove to be a big player in Carolina's defense in the upcoming campaign.
With NFL talent and former Gamecock safety net Jared Cook now looking for a long term dwelling in Tennessee, one would assume there would be a large hole in South Carolina's offensive scheme... Good thing there's a huge body there to put in it's place. With glimpses of big play ability in his first two years with the Gamecocks, Wesley Saunders looks to be a big part (literally and figuratively) of Carolina's offensive attack. The 6'5", 280 pound man-child has shown surprisingly soft hands in his brief career as a Gamecock, and any fan or coach will tell you that the kid is a freight train when he gets rolling down the field. The JR could prove to be just what the doctor ordered for QB Stephen Garcia once he starts to comfortably roll out of the pocket. If Saunders can get open on a consistent basis and be the emergency valve for his quarterback, it could open up the entire offense and take pressure off of everyone around him.