Football

Senior moments are lacking

Columbia, SC 11/14/09 Gerry Melendez/gmelendez@thestate.com ---South Carolina senior wide receiver No. 9 Moe Brown is corralled by a group of Florida players after a first quarter catch during the Gamecocks game against the Gators at Williams-Brice Stadium, Saturday, November 14, 2009.
Columbia, SC 11/14/09 Gerry Melendez/gmelendez@thestate.com ---South Carolina senior wide receiver No. 9 Moe Brown is corralled by a group of Florida players after a first quarter catch during the Gamecocks game against the Gators at Williams-Brice Stadium, Saturday, November 14, 2009.

South Carolina's senior-day activities should conclude quickly before Saturday's game.

There are not many seniors left.

The members of Steve Spurrier's first two Gamecocks recruiting classes - players Spurrier hoped would be the nucleus of his fifth USC squad - have been whittled to a group barely big enough to field a flag football team.

USC will honor nine seniors before the Clemson game. The Gamecocks are tied with Duke for the second-smallest senior class in the country. Three other redshirt juniors are expected to graduate and forgo their final seasons of eligibility.

Included among the seniors are three members of Spurrier's inaugural recruiting class (center Lemuel Jeanpierre, defensive tackle Nathan Pepper and linebacker Gerrod Sinclair), the school's all-time sacks leader (linebacker Eric Norwood) and two of the four captains (Norwood and receiver Moe Brown).

And though they failed to earn the school's first SEC championship game appearance, the seniors have a chance to be part of the winningest four-year stretch in school history with victories against Clemson and in the bowl game.

"Our chance to win a SEC is over for our class. That's something we've been talking about and sharing with the younger guys," Pepper said. "We helped build a good foundation, and the guys can come out next year and do some things we haven't done."

USC's class of 2006 featured 24 players and was ranked No. 24 in the country by Rivals.com. Offensive linemen made up a third of the class - a big group that Rivals rated the nation's seventh-best.

But many of those linemen underperformed, prompting Spurrier to change offensive line coaches during the offseason and forcing him and his staff to juggle personnel in a search for a solid front five.

Nearly four years after signing with the Gamecocks, only two linemen from the class are listed on the two-deep chart - starting right tackle Hutch Eckerson and backup center Garrett Anderson.

"It's probably the reason why I'm standing here," said offensive line coach Eric Wolford, the former Illinois assistant who replaced John Hunt. "We've just got to find a way to calm the waters and get it right. We need to sign some guys this year. ... We're going to load up on linemen so we're not going to be deficient in that area anymore."

The class of '06 produced four current starters: Brown, Norwood, Eckerson and strong safety Darian Stewart. Another starter, middle linebacker Rodney Paulk, sustained a season-ending knee injury in the N.C. State opener.

Four other '06 signees left in the past year with eligibility remaining: defensive backs Emanuel Cook and Captain Munnerlyn, offensive lineman Heath Batchelor and quarterback Chris Smelley.

"We don't have a whole lot of seniors right now," Spurrier said. "That's just the way it worked out."

But the seniors who stayed believe they helped instill a better attitude after morale bottomed out last year following losses to Florida and Clemson, and the perceived distraction of having players such as Cook and Munnerlyn focusing on the NFL.

Brown called a players-only meeting after the Clemson loss to clear the air. And though the meeting did not seem to help the Gamecocks in a lopsided Outback Bowl loss to Iowa, Brown believes it was the first step toward improved senior leadership.

"This was the same class that wanted to take a different approach to the year and offseason workouts (and) on-field play," Brown said. "Having that never-quit attitude and trying to do things the right way."

That no-quit approach could come in handy this week. The Gamecocks have lost two in a row entering Saturday's game and are three-point underdogs to a Clemson team that has won 10 of the past 12 meetings.

Pepper, who grew up in Greenville, knows what a win against Clemson would mean to the seniors' legacy.

"It doesn't matter what you did before that. If our team's able to go out and get that win, it definitely makes everything all right," Pepper said. "Even if we go out and play a bowl game and we didn't play so well, the fans always seem to remember, at least we beat Clemson this year."

And though these seniors never made it to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, Norwood still hopes to play in his hometown.

"We still want to get to Atlanta one way or another," he said. "Hopefully, we get a (Chick-fil-A) bowl game there, depending on how things go."

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