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Change of heart pays off for Norwood

University of South Carolina 40 Eric Norwood and 4 Jason Barnes celebrate the Gamecocks 34-17 victory over Clemson University at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday.
University of South Carolina 40 Eric Norwood and 4 Jason Barnes celebrate the Gamecocks 34-17 victory over Clemson University at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday.

South Carolina linebacker Eric Norwood and a few of the Gamecocks' other junior players had a pact last season: They would turn pro after the Outback Bowl against Iowa and enter the NFL together.

But a few days after announcing he was leaving, Norwood said he was returning for his senior year to pursue team and individual goals and improve his draft stock. It's been a banner year for Norwood, who broke the school's record for career sacks and became the first USC player in 25 years to make The Associated Press' All-America first team.

As he prepares for his final game with the Gamecocks, Norwood sat down recently with The State's Joseph Person and discussed a variety of topics, including his decision to return to USC and his most memorable college moments.

QUESTION: You played a lot of sports growing up. At what point did you narrow it down to football?

ANSWER: After my sophomore year. That was my first year on varsity. My freshman year in high school, I played D-tackle and D-end. My sophomore year my coach moved me to linebacker and jut let me run. I played basketball that year, too. I was on the JV team. He called me in his office and was like, 'You're not going anywhere in basketball. ... You're going to play football.' That's when I really started to hone in on it.

Q: You've lived in Oakland, Dallas and the Atlanta area. Was that one of the things that attracted you to USC - that it was more of an urban campus than other places?

A: It kind of did. Columbia, out of all the schools that you look at on Saturdays when you're in high school - you look at Florida and look at Georgia - and it's like the Gainesvilles and Athens and the Auburns and everywhere else, they're not in a big city like this. We've got a good location to everything. An hour from Charlotte, a couple hours from Atlanta.

Q: What do you remember about your recruiting visit? Who was your host?

A: Matt Raysor. I still talk to him. I want to say we went to some O-lineman's house, Freddy Saint-Preux. Went to his house at University Oaks and then we drove around campus. And I saw Patterson (Hall) and all the girls' dorms. I'm just thinking, that's the best thing on campus. The best thing I'd seen since I'd been on a visit.

Q: You'd committed to Oklahoma State. Had they had a coaching change, or did you realize that wasn't where you wanted to be?

A: I just had to make the best move for me. I was committed there because my best friend (from Texas), Al'darius Thompson, he was going to commit to Oklahoma State. I was actually getting ready to commit to Auburn before he called me and was like, 'I just went to the Oklahoma State camp. I killed it. Come to school with me.' We always said we'd go to school together. So then I sent my tape, and two days later they called me and offered me. Everything was cool from there. I committed before my visit, actually got to watch them play Texas. That was crazy.

Q: Didn't you have a cousin who played in college?

A: Yeah, Chris Williams. He played for Mesquite High School. He started at West Virginia then he ended up at Stephen F. Austin. He played behind Pac-Man (Adam Jones) at West Virginia then transferred back to Texas.

Q: Who had the biggest influence on you in terms of football?

A: I'd probably say him. Just watching him from when I was younger when he was playing for a Pop Warner team and getting to watch him be like Deion (Sanders) and everybody. I thought he was like Kordell Stewart back in the day.

Q: Any memories stick out from your first practices at South Carolina?

A: My best memory was probably my worst practice. That was from our third scrimmage. The first two scrimmages went good. I was getting sacks and making plays. I didn't know what I was doing, I was just out there. In that third scrimmage, I just messed up on like every play. Coach (Brad) Lawing had me starting on one rush package, and I still messed up. There ended up being like 10 players in the game. It was cool, though. Coach (Tyrone) Nix called me that night, told me just come back tomorrow and bounce back, and everything will be cool. Came back, had a good practice.

Q: What was your reaction when they first came to you about moving to linebacker?

A: It was cool. I got the call the day before spring practice. I'd been training myself at D-end. I was 273, 274 (pounds) at that time. Coach (Ellis) Johnson called me and was like, 'How do you feel about linebacker?' I was like, 'It's cool.' I'd basically played it that year before when we were in a 3-4 defense. Once I had to lose all that weight, that was the biggest struggle.

Q: How'd you do it?

A: Just running, had to cut out drinking as much. The drinking, the pizza, the late-night snacks. It was tough because there's like a Sonic over here and a Bojangles there. I had to cut out the sodas, fried food and started dropping. The highest I got up to was 282.

Q: What weight did you play at this year?

A: I was about 247, 248. I don't like to let it go any lower than 245 or any higher than 255.

Q: Do you think they might ask you to put your hand on the ground at the next level?

A: As far as rushing the passer, but not like an every-down defensive end. But as far as rushing, yeah, I think I add a lot of value when it comes to that.

Q: Did you feel like you had something to prove this year in pass coverage?

A: Definitely. I knew I could do it. But the type of defense we run, there's no point for me to be sitting out there covering all day when the best thing I do is rush. But I can do everything well, at least in my eyes.

Q: What was your best game?

A: Arkansas my junior year. I had like nine (solo) tackles and three sacks. I kind of had something against Arkansas.

Q: What was that?

A: During the whole recruiting process, they were recruiting me. Coach was like, 'Yeah, we're going to offer you.' Went down there to the camp, did well, and they still didn't offer me.

Q: You should have taken that out on Houston Nutt, not Bobby Petrino.

A: I did. I took it out on him when we played Ole Miss.

Q: Who have you leaned on this year - and last year when you were considering it - for advice on the draft?

A: Jasper and Casper (Brinkley). Everybody else in that whole little group of juniors when we decided we were going to come out at the same time. We stayed strong with all that stuff because we knew we couldn't just talk to anybody.

Q: There was a pact amongst you guys that you were going to come out together?

A: Yeah. We're still close. I went to go see the (Panthers-Vikings) game (featuring several ex-Gamecocks, including Captain Munnerlyn).

Q: Have you ever thought about how things would be different if you'd stayed in the draft?

A: Not really. The only thing I ever thought about was would I go second (round) or fifth?

Q: What was your grade (from the NFL's advisory committee)?

A: It was four to seven (projected as a fourth- to seventh-round pick). I felt like I didn't have enough room to elevate myself that much. I didn't have a senior bowl.

Q: When you were having second thoughts, did you call Captain or (Emanuel) Cook and say, 'I'm going back to school. Maybe you ought to reconsider?'

A: We all talked. We all had different situations. Some people wanted to stay, some people wanted to go. E-Cook really kind of considered doing the whole coming-back thing. But when the academics melted down on him, it just went bad. He got, like, a bad rep from there.

Q: Was there a moment this season or at graduation when it hit you that you made the right choice coming back?

A: When I walked across the stage. Of course, I wasn't saying anything. But I had a million things running through my head.

Q: What's it going to be like when you're at Legion Field knowing it's your last time in a Gamecock uniform?

A: It's going to be crazy. (I'm going to) try to put on my best performance I've ever had. It's my last one.

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