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Coach Johnson backs Culliver

Ellis Johnson does not condone how South Carolina safety Chris Culliver acted this week. But the Gamecocks' assistant head coach for defense said it is time for fans to get off Culliver's back.

Culliver, a junior with 22 career starts, will not make the trip to Arkansas. He was benched because of a shoulder injury and an incident Monday when Culliver walked out of practice after an argument with coaches.

Culliver has come under fire for his effort in last week's 31-13 loss to Tennessee. Culliver had a couple of glaring missed tackles, although it was later revealed he reinjured his surgically repaired shoulder in pregame warmups.

Lorenzo Ward, who coaches USC's safeties and cornerbacks, said Culliver told him about the injury before the game but indicated he was OK.

"Really it's our fault for not seeing that he wasn't himself," Johnson said Thursday. "Now what happened after that, he didn't handle it well. And as a result, he's not going. But I'm tired of all the Chris Culliver bashing."

Johnson said anyone questioning Culliver's desire has not watched the Gamecocks enough.

"The kid has played 647 snaps for us, and the only guy that's played more is (All-SEC linebacker Eric) Norwood by three snaps. And he's played (darn) well," Johnson added. "He needs to take his medicine because he didn't handle it the right way. But we don't need to get into Chris Culliver bashing."

Raising the bar

USC coach Steve Spurrier has not mentioned the SEC championship as a goal since prior to the 2007 season - until Thursday.

"Our plan is within the next three years, we've got a team that can compete for the SEC championship. That's our plan," Spurrier said on his call-in show. "If we can't do it within three years, they probably need to hire another head coach here and let him start his plan."

The 64-year-old Spurrier said USC was in "good shape" to contend for a title, citing the new assistant coaches, the incoming recruits and improved facilities.

"Maybe what we did the first four years, we didn't build it the right way," he said. "So we're trying to build it the right way right now."

Starting them young

USC is not the only SEC team playing a lot of freshmen this season. Arkansas has started six true freshmen this season, tied for second most in the country.

Four true freshmen have started for the Gamecocks: tight end Justice Cunningham, receiver Alshon Jeffery, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and strong safety DeVonte Holloman.

Eat more chicken

The Chick-fil-A Bowl will have a scout at Saturday's game to watch the Gamecocks for the second consecutive week.

"To stay on our list their offense will have to keep pace with their defense and carry them through the last three (games)," Chick-fil-A official Leeman Bennett wrote on his weekly team selection blog. "If they can win two of them, we'll give them a good look."

Auburn and Tennessee were the other SEC teams Bennett mentioned in his blog.

Extra points

After video review, USC has credited its blocked field goal against Tennessee to Norwood instead of defensive end Devin Taylor. It was Norwood's third block this year. ... Fifth-year defensive tackle Nathan Pepper will serve as one of four captains this week in place of injured defensive end Cliff Matthews. ... Spurrier said Mississippi coach Houston Nutt called him to say he appreciated Spurrier's comments this week about being bowl eligible. The Rebels (5-3) need one more win for bowl eligibility.

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