This Spurrier-era all-star defensive unit is not just a list of 11 outstanding Gamecocks, but it’s representative of the talent and leadership that has helped to build the South Carolina football program into the consistent winner it has become.
The no-brainer of course, is Jadeveon Clowney. Although he faced double and triple-teams all season, and struggled with some nagging injuries, JD still had a very solid season statistically, with 35 total tackles, 24 solo with 10.5 for loss. His three sacks gives him 24 and moves him into third place on the career sacks list. His two pass breakups, eight quarterback hurries, and one forced fumble were impact moments.
Devin Taylor (2009-12), is my pick for the other DE. Despite being the “other” end to Clowney, Taylor had a very solid career. He stands second in the school career tackles for loss list with 35.5, and he is number six on the career sacks list with 18.5. Devin had an outstanding senior season with 45 total tackles, 27 solo, eight for loss, three sacks, six pass breakups, three QB hurries, and one fumble recovery.
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Although he started his USC career at linebacker, Melvin Ingram (2007-11) became a force when he moved down. Melvin is tied for fourth in tackles for loss (15.0) and sacks (9.0) for a season. He is seventh in tackles for loss (30.5) and fourth in sacks (21.5) for a career. He was the team leader in sacks for both 2010 (9) and '11 (13). But most Gamecock fans will remember Melvin for the fake punt he took 68 yards for a touchdown in the 45-42 over Georgia in '11.
For the other tackle, my choice is Travian Robertson (2007-10). Travian missed most of the 2009 season with a knee injury. He came back with in 2010 with 42 total tackles, 28 solo, 10.0 for loss, 4.0 sacks, with 2 pass breakups, one forced fumble, and two fumble recoveries. Healthy as senior, he upped his totals to 49 total stops, 25 solo, 8.0 for loss, 2.5 sacks, 4 QB hurries and a blocked kick.
There are a few candidates in the freshman group, but the defense is still looking for a linebacker capable of making the impact that Eric Norwood (2006-09) did in his career. Eric is second to Clowney on tackles for loss (19.5) and tied for fourth in sacks (9.0) in a season. He is first on USC's career list for tackles for loss (54.5) and sacks (29.0). Eric had a fabulous senior season with 81 total tackles, 55 solo, 11.5 for loss, 7.0 sacks, and 2 interceptions, 11 QB hurries, one forced fumble, one recovered fumble, and three blocked kicks. It's hard to argue with those stats.
My other two picks at linebacker are favorites, because they weren't big enough, strong enough or fast enough, but all they did was make plays.
Shaq Wilson fought his way back from a hamstring injury that cost him the 2010 season, to finish fourth on the team in tackles with 52 in 2011. With his fifth-year senior experience, Shaq was amazing last season. He finished with a team-high 85 tackles, 42 solo, 4.5 for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, three QB hurries, two forced fumbles, and a recovered fumble. Now a graduate assistant, Shaq is helping teach the young linebackers the importance of playing smart and being in the right place at the right time.
My other linebacker choice also had to fight back from season-ending injuries. In the case of Rodney Paulk (2006-07, 2010-11), it meant the loss of two campaigns. A second-team Sporting News Freshman All-American in 2006 (36 tackles), Rodney followed that up with a fourth-place finish on the tackles list (64) in 2007, but he missed 2008 and 2009 with injuries to one, and then the other, knee. He wasn't fully healthy in 2010, but still recorded 32 total tackles, 23 solo stops, with 4.0 for loss, and 2.5 sacks. A rare sixth-year senior in '11, Rodney had missed that spring after having his knee scoped. He split time with Wilson during the season, but was fourth in tackles with 57, 32 solo, and 3.5 for loss. Rodney played smart and played his heart out.
Stephon Gilmore (2009-11), in his freshman debut, intercepted a pass in the end zone on the last play of the 2009 season opener, to preserve a 7-3 win over N.C. State. It was the first of many game-changing plays Stephon would make in his career, but it also represented a significant shift in recruiting that would propel Carolina to national prominence. The first of four Mr. South Carolina Football winners to sign with the Gamecocks, he helped influence in-state stars such as Justice Cunningham, Devonte Holloman, Alshon Jeffery, Jimmy Legree, and D.J. Swearinger in the 2009 class. Stephon started every game, and earned Freshman All-America honors by Phil Steele, CollegeFootballNews.com, and Scout.com, and Freshman All-SEC honors by the league's coaches. He ranked fifth on the team with 56 tackels, 39 solo, 6.0 for loss, three sacks, one interception and eight pass breakups. In '10 he led the team with 79 tackles, 6.0 for loss, 3.0 sacks, and three interceptions. In his final season before turning pro, Stephon was again solid as a rock with 46 total stops, 35 solo, one sack and four interceptions.
My pick for the other corner has to be Captain Munnerlyn (2006-08). He had five starts as a true freshman, and was credited with 36 tackles, 27 solo, two interceptions and five pass breakups. Despite missing two starts due to injury, Captain earned postseason recognition, picking up first-team All-SEC honors from the league's coaches and Rivals.com, second-team accolades from the Associated Press, and third-team honorable mention from Phil Steele. CollegeFootballNews.com put him on its first-team All-Sophomore squad. He was seventh on the team with 47 tackles, 40 solo. He also handled the punt return duties, ranking seventh in the SEC with 165 yard (9.2 yd. avg.), and he returned a dozen kickoffs for 258 yards, (21.5 yd. Avg.). Like Stephon, Captain made his junior season his last as a Gamecock, and he finished with another solid year – 44 total tackles, 29 solo, 10 for loss, two sacks, and five pass breakups.
Another player who has yet to be replaced is D.J. Swearinger (2009-12). The physical, as well as the emotional leader for the defense, D.J. made receivers regret coming his way. D.J was an immediate contributor as a true freshman, as he played in all 13 games with 19 tackles, 13 solo, one pass breakup and one quarterback hurry. As a sophomore in '10, he got eight starts, at both free and strong safety, and was fourth on the team with 66 tackles, 2.0 for loss, and five pass breakups. As a junior, he became a dominant figure in the secondary, with 80 tackles, 58 solo, and three interceptions. He closed out his career last season with another outstanding year. He was again second on the team in tackles with 79, 62 solo, two interceptions, seven pass breakups, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries.
Chris Culliver (2007-10) is my choice for the other safety spot. Chris first made his mark on special teams. He was named to Sporting News All-SEC Freshman team as a kick returner, when he returned 34 kicks for 809 yards, which ranks second in school history. He moved into the starting lineup at free safety as a sophomore, and recorded 60 tackles, 4.5 for loss, three interceptions, three pass break ups, and two forced fumbles. In 2009 Chris was a second-team All-SEC pick by the AP, and a third-team selection by Phil Steele, after he logged 62 tackles. He returned 26 kickoffs for 585 yards, and had four kick returns for 122 yards. Injuries limited Chris to seven starts as a senior, but in limited action, he had 34 tackles, 28 solo, two breakups, and one forced fumble.