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Best ever? Sky's the limit for Culliver at safety

University of South Carolina (17) Chris Culliver fires up the crowd as the Gamecocks prepare to take on Florida Atlantic at Williams Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2009.
University of South Carolina (17) Chris Culliver fires up the crowd as the Gamecocks prepare to take on Florida Atlantic at Williams Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2009.

You hear it, then stop. You hesitate a moment, check your notes, then ask the coach if he really said that about Chris Culliver.

The quote is right:

"He could be one of the best safeties to ever play this game if he ever reaches his full potential," said Lorenzo Ward, South Carolina's defensive coordinator.

Ever?

The necessary follow-up: Um, coach, do you say that kind of thing a lot?

"Not at all. If he didn't have that ability I wouldn't say that," Ward said.

"Chris is best with toughness, he's physical, he can run and he's got great quickness. When you've got that combination with a safety, you've got a great chance to be a great, great player. But again, you've got to work that way in order to be great."

Putting in that work was part of a discussion Culliver and Ward had this week. While Culliver is second on the team in tackles and leads in pass break-ups, Ward believes he could be doing more.

He can be more aggressive. He can show more leadership. He can go from good - the third player others mention when talking about USC's defense - to great.

Linebacker Eric Norwood, who leads the SEC in sacks and has an interception return for a touchdown, is a national star. Defensive end Cliff Matthews, who has a pair of two-sack games, is an All-SEC candidate.

The spectacular has eluded Culliver so far. But he is clearly capable, and his coaches believe he also can be "the guy."

Ward does not want it to sound like he is disappointed in Culliver. He knows it is a matter of circumstance: Culliver only moved to safety as a sophomore and missed spring practice this year as a precaution due to a shoulder injury.

That put Culliver behind in learning some aspects of the defensive scheme. Ward, who coaches the free safeties and corners, came over from Arkansas after last season. Ellis Johnson, the assistant head coach for defense, was in his first year in 2008, Culliver's first at safety.

"I think he's still playing a little tentative, because he's not having a full understanding of what we're doing yet," Ward said. "The more and more he learns what we're asking for him in the system, the more we ask of him in certain situations, he'll be even better."

Culliver also is still dabbling in special teams, as one of the kick returners. He needs 67 yards to break USC's school record for kickoff return yards, and holds the career record for most kickoff returns (78).

He also made one start at receiver, at Tennessee, as a freshman and has five career carries for 31 yards.

"I don't taking nothing back, because I wanted to be a receiver, I wanted to try to make the plays. But that wasn't really my position," Culliver said. "I don't really regret it, coming as a receiver versus not (starting) as a defensive back. Things work out for the best."

Culliver was a safety in high school, where a rival player - and current teammate - was wowed by Culliver's talent. Tight end Weslye Saunders, who is from Durham, was on a team that beat Culliver's Raleigh-based Garner High team twice.

"I've always said he was a five-star safety in my eyes, because I've played against him," Saunders said. "Just the way he sees the field and the speed he has to get from one side of the field to the other, I've always said he's the best safety I've been around in a while."

Saunders also remembers a combine in North Carolina where Culliver was clocked at 4.1 seconds in the 40-yard dash. No one believed it.

"For a guy that big and that cut to be running that fast, it was unseen at the time," Saunders said.

That gets to the heart of why Ward believes in Culliver's long-range potential. The coaches even looked at moving him to cornerback, but decided that Culliver was not comfortable with it yet.

Even at safety, Culliver is still slow to react sometimes, his mind "tying up his feet," according to Ward. Once he fully masters the position, it's only a matter of time.

"He's played well," Ward said. "But he has not played to his full potential yet."

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