Sizing up the fall's most intriguing players, in no particular order. Today: Sophomore South Carolina cornerback/punt returner Stephon Gilmore.
• Typecasting. Gilmore showed up early for spring practice last year with a U-Haul full of accolades – a top-100 recruit with offers from everyone east of the Mississippi and the freshly-minted title of "Mr. Football" in South Carolina after quarterbacking his high school team to a 15-0, state-championship season as a senior – and was such an instant hit that his ascendency into one of the vacant cornerback jobs seemed to be a foregone conclusion. There was at least as much early buzz about the dreadlock'd freshman's potential as a shotgun runner in Carolina's version of the Wildcat (from which he took a handful of snaps in his first spring game), and he had to answer questions about staying "grounded" before he'd set foot in a college game.
The only difference a year later is that all the questions have already been asked, and mostly answered: Gilmore started every game for a defense that finished in the top 10 nationally against the pass and wound up on virtually every freshman All-America team. As a sophomore, he looks like the best player on one of the best defenses in the SEC, and an essential cog if Carolina is going to come anywhere near the long-awaited breakthrough in a wide-open East Division.
• Best-case. Cornerback is a notoriously impossible position to judge from the outside, without a fair amount of film and understanding of the coverages in specific situations, because the best corners are typically absent from the stat sheet as a sign of respect from opposing offenses. On that front, Gilmore seems to check out: By the second game of his career, Georgia was already avoiding the boundary side of the field (all six of A.J. Green's receptions against USC came either in front of Gilmore's counterpart at field corner, Akeem Auguste, or over the middle, behind the linebackers in a zone look), and Alabama's hulking star, Julio Jones, was held without a catch for the only time in his career in the Tide's defensively driven, 20-6 win in October. Even Arkansas, by far the most gung-ho deep-passing attack in the conference, settled for completing passes in front of Gilmore rather than challenge him downfield; Razorback QB Ryan Mallett hit 23 of 27 for 324 yards, but was held without a touchdown pass for the only time all season. Gilmore doesn't have outrageous speed, and Carolina plays mostly zone coverage, but it was quickly evident that he can hang with pretty much anyone who lines up across from him at this level.
He was also relatively active against the run, finishing fourth on the team with 56 tackles, six of them for loss (including three sacks, one on a blindside hit that knocked the ball loose from Georgia QB Joe Cox), despite a reputation for tentativeness. Critics in that vein – including Gilmore himself, who's said he wants to improve his tackling – may have been encouraged by a strong fourth-down lick he laid on roommate Jarvis Giles in the spring game, suggesting a more assured, physical presence this fall.
The bigger promise out of the spring, though, was an increased role for the "Wild Cock," which appeared for a single series in 2009 – a seven-play, 60-yard touchdown drive against Clemson that featured five runs for 20 yards by Gilmore and a 39-yard completion to fellow freshman Alshon Jeffery to set up the Gamecocks' first score in an eventual 34-17 upset. Gilmore didn't take another snap in that game or in the bowl game, and insists he's committed to cornerback despite regular reps in the shotgun throughout the spring. But if Steve Spurrier is serious about incumbent Stephen Garcia's tentative hold on the starting job, Gilmore's one career pass in an actual game is one more than attempted by anyone else on the team.
• Worst-case. There was a distinct lack of big plays in '09 not only from Gilmore, who recorded his only interception against Florida Atlantic, but from the Gamecock D in general, which finished with an SEC-worst six interceptions, fewer than all but four other teams nationally (by contrast, the 'Cocks collected 14 picks as a team three years in a row from 2006-08, which was still slightly below the league average).
Two of those INTs came against Alabama, which was held to its worst passing game of the season before giving up and grinding out a win behind a career night from Mark Ingram. Otherwise, with the exception of All-SEC linebacker Eric Norwood's two-sack effort in the September upset over Ole Miss, there was no consistent playmaker who could be counted on to come up with anything to bail out the bottom-dwelling offense. With Norwood off to the NFL, Gilmore is the most likely candidate to fill the "game-changer" role on defense – and in the return game, where he was fairly pedestrian after taking over punt return duties at midseason.
• (Moderately) Fun Fact. Though Michigan was the only school that wanted him as a full-time quarterback, Gilmore was by no means a one-dimensional QB as a high school upperclassman, passing for more than 1,700 yards as a senior. Before it installed the spread in 2007, though, newly-opened South Pointe High ran a flexbone/option scheme for the first two years of its existence, the high point of which was probably Gilmore's 65-yard touchdown run on the first play of school history in a freshman game (South Pointe wouldn't field a varsity team until the following year) against crosstown rival Rock Hill in 2005. Said coach Bobby Carroll: "I go, 'Holy cow, this has got potential.'" No kidding, coach.
• What to Expect in '10. As criticisms go, "failed to singlehandedly overcome the conference's worst offense as a true freshman" is about as mild as they come. By his own account, Gilmore can be more consistent as a tackler and in recognizing formations, but he was everything you could ask from a first-year player in '09, and stands to emerge this fall as an All-SEC mainstay for the next two years; aside from LSU's Patrick Peterson and maybe Alabama's Mark Barron, Gilmore may be the conference's best candidate for All-American nods in the secondary. At the least, he's due for the kind of sophomore breakout Peterson enjoyed last year for the Tigers.
Whether that has any effect on Carolina's bid to break out of the 7-5 doldrums probably depends on the extent Gilmore is able to supplement his status as a top cover man with a few more interceptions and/or the occasional big play in the return game and in the shotgun on offense. That doesn't mean he has to be Charles Woodson, but Gilmore is the most likely sparkplug on the roster, and the offense hasn't show any indication it can make significant headway against the Georgias, Alabamas, Tennessees and Floridas of the conference without some well-timed intervention from somewhere.
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Previously (alphabetical by school): Marcell Dareus, Alabama. ... Andre Ellington, Clemson. ... Martez Wilson, Illinois. ... Tandon Doss, Indiana. ... Sean Spence, Miami. ... Aldon Smith, Missouri. ... Nate Irving, N.C. State. ... Mike Adams/J.B. Shugarts, Ohio State. ... DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma. ... Janzen Jackson, Tennessee. ... Christine Michael, Texas A&M. ... Akeem Ayers, UCLA. ... Warren Norman, Vanderbilt. ... Jermaine Kearse, Washington.