Soon after spring football practice ended, Stephon Gilmore walked around the floor of the S.C. House of Representatives in April shaking hands with lawmakers and soaking in the trappings of the State House.
USC’s defensive leader wanted to see how the state’s political leaders did their business.
“He’s inquisitive,” said his friend Bakari Sellers, a state representative from Denmark who brought Gilmore to the House floor. “It’s awesome for a person who has so much going for him to care about how the laws and policies are made.”
Gilmore will take that leadership into a junior season of high expectations for the Gamecocks and for himself, as he sees if he’s ready for an early run at the pros.
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Coming off a year in which Gilmore led the Gamecocks in tackles and interceptions, coaches want him to do more than give receivers fits and win postseason awards.
“He’s going to have to be more a voice for me,” USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. “Not just a leader by example, which he’s always done, he got to be more boisterous, because guys listen to him and they respect him because they respect his work ethic and they respect the way he plays.”
Gilmore can build that voice by further mastering USC’s defense, which puts him in better position to share what he knows with teammates, Ward said.
Though he’s coming off an All-SEC season and has started every game since he arrived on campus, Gilmore needs to do some work, Ward said.
The cornerback from Rock Hill got beat on some double moves last season and is working to stay with the receiver better and not break for the ball. He’s also trying to improve his angles.
“He’s earned it and deserved everything that he’s gotten,” Ward said. “The label he’s been given comes with responsibility, and he’s responsible for his teammates just like he is for himself.”
Becoming a vocal leader will take some work for the soft-spoken Gilmore. He knows he needs to become a better player first. “My game has not reached its top yet,” he said.
And he knows he needs to push his teammates. Gilmore said the Gamecocks have a chip on their shoulders about trying to improve on last season, which netted an SEC East title but ended with losses in the conference championship game and Chick-fil-A Bowl. “We’ve got to put it behind us and focus on this year,” he said.
Gilmore has shown leadership. He helped freshman Martay Mattox feel more comfortable in spring practice with the switch from quarterback to defensive back — a move Gilmore made after coming to Columbia.
“He has been pretty successful at it, so I wanted to give it a shot,” Mattox said.
And Gilmore stepped up when the team needed his help off the field. He was credited with helping bring former South Pointe High teammate Jadeveon Clowney, the nation’s top recruit, to South Carolina.
“It really wasn’t a fair fight,” Ellis Johnson, the Gamecocks’ assistant head coach for defense, said of Gilmore’s persuasiveness.
A big question is whether Gilmore will stay for this senior season. Some analysts suggest he could be an NFL first-round draft pick in 2012 if he forgoes his senior season.
“I love Gamecock football LOL,” was all he replied when asked about it on Twitter soon after spring practice.
On the House floor, Gilmore was at ease with powerful lawmakers who seemed more awed by him than he was by his surroundings. Politicians snapped photos with the Gamecock star as talk of budgets and bills turned to the upcoming USC season.