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USC freshmen playing beyond their years

USC newcomers, from left, Jarvis Giles, T.J. Johnson, Alshon Jeffery and Stephon Gilmore have given the Gamecocks a boost.
USC newcomers, from left, Jarvis Giles, T.J. Johnson, Alshon Jeffery and Stephon Gilmore have given the Gamecocks a boost.

South Carolina's players will step off the bus today near the corner of Tee Martin Drive and Phillip Fulmer Way and walk into one of the largest stadiums in the country.

There will be about 102,000 fans waiting for the Gamecocks inside Tennessee's Neyland Stadium - about 100,000 of them wearing bright orange - and USC coach Steve Spurrier is eager to see how his freshmen react.

If their brief history in the program is any indication, nothing they see on Halloween night in Knoxville will scare them.

"They're not your typical freshmen," Gamecocks recruiting coordinator Shane Beamer said. "They've gone into some tough environments and never once have you said, 'They showed that they're freshmen.' They didn't do it in Athens. They didn't do it in Tuscaloosa. I don't expect them to do it in Knoxville."

With nine seniors on the roster, the early playing time for the freshmen was more a necessity than a recruiting promise.

The 21st-ranked Gamecocks count 16 freshmen or redshirt freshmen among the 48 players on their two-deep chart - 12 of whom likely will play tonight against the Volunteers.

The group runs the gamut from players who came to Columbia as highly-rated prospects (receiver Alshon Jeffery, cornerback Stephon Gilmore) to those who arrived with less acclaim (tight end Justice Cunningham, cornerback D.J. Swearinger).

There have been a few freshman moments. Gilmore's first interception against Florida Atlantic came on a broken coverage, and tailback Jarvis Giles has been suspended a game for missing classes and frustrated Spurrier by losing yardage while trying to reverse directions.

But by and large, the newcomers have played beyond their years.

"I kind of expected it because I'd known some of the players before I got here and I knew they were pretty good," said Cunningham, a Central Pageland graduate who played against Columbia High's Damario Jeffery last year and was familiar with Swearinger. "I tried to keep up with 'em, so it's not a big surprise."

The class of 2009 was ranked No. 12 nationally by Rivals and 13th by Scout. While not all of the 29-player class qualified, those who did passed the "eye test" with Beamer.

"In a lot of signing classes, after you get them on campus, a lot of times you look at the class and say, 'Ugh. We made a mistake on so-and-so. I'm not sure he's going to be able to help us,'" Beamer said. "There's nobody in our class that we can say that about. Everybody that we signed will help us, and help us significantly at some point."

Many already have. Alshon Jeffery is USC's leading receiver despite not cracking the starting lineup until the sixth game, while Gilmore has started every game at boundary corner.

Besides the newest arrivals, USC has received big contributions from several redshirt freshmen, as well.

Kenny Miles leads the team in rushing after supplanting junior Brian Maddox as the starting tailback. Right guard T.J. Johnson is the only offensive lineman to start every game, while receiver Tori Gurley was the Gamecocks' top receiver early in the season before Jeffery's emergence.

Gurley said he and Jeffery took their cue from Georgia's A.J. Green and Alabama's Julio Jones, who were the second-team receivers on the coaches' All-SEC team last year as freshmen.

"Alshon and I, we have the same type of goals and ideas," Gurley said. "We're both pushing each other to be great."

Swearinger, a Greenwood native who was committed to Tennessee before Phillip Fulmer was forced to resign last year, has helped push Gilmore at corner. He said he is a "little surprised" at the number of freshmen who have played this season.

"But coach said he's going to put the best players out there," Swearinger said. "If the freshmen are the best players, I believe we deserve to play."

Cunningham collected 20 sacks as a defensive end and racked up 400 receiving yards and eight touchdowns at tight end his final season at Central Pageland. But he was considered a two-star prospect by Scout and Rivals because recruiting experts were not sure whether tight end or defensive end was his best position.

He has started two games at tight end while subbing for an injured Weslye Saunders, and has found a home on special teams.

Beamer, who is charge of special teams, gives out a big-hit award for his unit every week. Cunningham has received the honor a couple of times and been in the running on several other occasions.

"I told him we're getting ready to retire it in his honor," Beamer said.

Spurrier said it generally takes two to three years to fully judge a recruiting class, and concedes that a couple of USC's top-25 classes from a few years ago were overrated.

"Some of our recruiting classes that were ranked about 20 or so probably shouldn't have been," Spurrier said. "The players aren't here anymore, just didn't stick for whatever reason. So that's why we have a lot of freshmen playing and very few seniors."

But the early signs have been encouraging for the current group, which could form the nucleus of teams that make a run at the Gamecocks' first trip to the SEC championship game.

"We want to win now," said Gurley, a member of the 2008 recruiting class. "But just think in the long-term, we're really going to be a force to be reckoned with. ... Once we get everything clicking, we're going to be a top-5 team."


Gamecocks' fresh faces

A look at the freshmen who have made major contributions for the Gamecocks this season.

Alshon Jeffery, WR

Had 8 catches for 161 yards and game-winning TD vs. Vandy.

Stephon Gilmore, CB

Has an interception, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and 27 tackles.

*Kenny Miles, RB

Has rushed for 100 yards against Kentucky and 102 against Vandy.

*Devin Taylor, DE

Named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week after game against N.C. State.

Jarvis Giles, RB

First USC player to rush for 100 yards since 2006 with 113 against Florida Atlantic.

*Tori Gurley, WR

Third-leading receiver with 21 catches for 318 yards in six games.

*T.J. Johnson, G

Has started eight games at right guard for the Gamecocks.

*D.L. Moore, WR

Caught a 35-yard touchdown pass against Vandy.

Justice Cunningham, TE

Has made two starts at tight end, replacing injured Weslye Saunders.

D.J. Swearinger, CS

Has been receiving considerable playing time as backup at cornerback.

DeVonte Holloman, S

Solid backup at strong safety to Darian Stewart.

Aldrick Fordham, DT

Injury to Travian Robertson forced Fordham into backup role.

*-Redshirt freshmen

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