South Carolina’s secondary features a group of players who aren’t above giving one another a hard time — even when it comes to their senior leader, Chris Culliver.
Sophomore safety DeVonte Holloman, for instance, insists Culliver isn’t that great on the basketball court.
“He thinks he can play basketball, but he’s no good,” Holloman said. “He’ll dunk every now and then, but that’s on a good day. I have to get out there and show him how to play.”
Sophomore cornerback Stephon Gilmore even challenged Culliver’s supremacy as the team’s fastest player.
“He’s always talking about his speed to me. You know he’s fast, maybe the fastest player on the team,” Gilmore said. “I wouldn’t say that. I always tell him to race me.”
Culliver smiles upon hearing the remarks. He’s especially dismissive of Gilmore’s assertion.
“I’m the fastest on the team. Ask coach Fitz (strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald). We ran the 20s, and I got the fastest (time) in that. I’ve had the fastest since I’ve been here,” said Culliver, who is moving from free safety to cornerback this season. “Gilmore won’t race me.”
The ribbing serves as a way to build camaraderie. The defensive backs are a tight group, and they don’t mind staying on top of one another in an effort to get better.
“We always talk junk about each other,” said Gilmore, who’s rapidly gaining recognition as one of the best players in the country at his position.
But it’s Culliver who stands out. Last season, the 6-foot-1, 201-pound Garner, N.C., native was a second-team All-SEC selection, when he compiled 62 tackles and a team-high nine pass breakups. As a sophomore, he had 60 tackles, three interceptions and three pass breakups.
The versatile and athletic Culliver, who is an NFL prospect, also has excelled in the return game; he is USC’s all-time leader in kickoff returns (94) and kickoff-return yards (2,215), a figure that ranks fifth all time in the SEC.
Free safety Akeem Auguste gladly acknowledges Culliver as the secondary’s leader.
“That’s the man right there,” Auguste said. “I’m trying to be just like him when I grow up.”
With the two switching positions — in part to ease the burden on Culliver’s surgically repaired shoulders, which would likely take more physical punishment at safety — they know how important it is to help each other with the transition.
“You’ve just got to know the different coverages. From safety to corner, you’re on more of an island by yourself,” Gilmore said. “I think he’s getting better every day in practice, and he’s going to be ready for the season. Athletically, he can handle it. He just has to do the little things.”
Culliver says he will lean on Auguste for guidance.
“We communicate a lot. If I don’t know something, I just ask him,” Culliver said. “Whatever he sees that I don’t see, he lets me know. As long as we’re on the same sheet of paper, everything will be fine.”
Adds Auguste, “Cully is going to be great at corner, and I’m adjusting to free safety real well. As long as he’s got my back, I’ve got his.”
Culliver also hopes this is the year opponents watch his back as he races into the end zone on a kickoff return. Despite his record-setting yardage total, his career long is 67 yards, in a 2008 game against Tennessee. He nearly broke kickoffs for scores against Alabama and Kentucky last season.
“There were a lot of returns last year that could have been better than they were if just one guy on the back side does what he’s supposed to do,” special teams coach Shane Beamer said. “We’ve got to block better for Chris, and Chris knows he’s got to be better about running North-South and not always trying to go East-West.”
Culliver is confident this is the season he will break a return for a touchdown.
“I enjoy it a lot because that’s the first thing you do. That’s the first thing for the offense when we get out there,” he said. “Just all that excitement being back there and having the ball in your hand for the first possession of the night. I enjoy it a lot.”
What he would enjoy more would be ending his collegiate career in a race for the SEC championship. As much as he and his defensive backfield mates kid one another, he’s serious about one thing:
“I want to do my best and win games. Winning games takes care of itself. If you win games, you get a lot of exposure, regardless of who you are,” Culliver said. “I’m trying to help my team as much as possible. This is my last go-round. And I don’t want to have any regrets.”