With the questionable status of two of South Carolina's best cornerbacks, the upcoming spring practice offers an opportunity for several young players to impress the USC coaching staff and earn a shot at playing time in the fall.
Junior Captain Munnerlyn and senior Carlos Thomas may not be available to participate when spring practice starts March 19, but for different reasons.
Munnerlyn is nursing a foot injury, while Thomas was indefinitely suspended from the football program last week for what head coach Steve Spurrier described as behavioral issues.
Their likely absences means most of the spring practice reps will go to younger, less experienced players such as sophomore Addison Williams and redshirt freshman Jamire Williams.
Munnerlyn is expected to sit out most of the spring while he continues to rehabilitate from the broken foot he sustained in the loss at Arkansas in early November. Munnerlyn tried to play the following week against Florida but limped to the sidelines after one play. He missed the Clemson game.
"Our doctors and trainers are optimistic that he'll be able to get out there and do a little bit towards the end of spring practice," secondary coach Shane Beamer said. "Obviously, we know what Captain can do. We don't want to rush him back too soon. He's getting along well. He's been able to get out there do some things on his own. His rehab has been going great."
Munnerlyn's presence was sorely missed in the final game of the 2007 season when the USC secondary surrendered several key pass completions to Clemson on third and fourth downs late in the game.
Munnerlyn started 11 games last season and finished with 47 tackles. He also tied for the team lead with three interceptions, including a key pick in the end zone in the nationally televised victory over Kentucky. He added four pass breakups and one fumble recovery.
"Captain had a great year for us last year and it was disappointing to see him get hurt," Beamer said. "He's excited to get back out there. I know he's frustrated because he's not 100 percent healthy and he won't be doing much at all during the spring. But he's been great in meetings trying to learn and understand the new packages."
The solid play of Munnerlyn, recognized as one of the top cover corners in the SEC, was a primary reason USC had the top pass defense in the SEC (168.8 ypg).
When will Thomas's indefinite suspension be lifted? Beamer hopes it's soon, but he also understands the situation is beyond his control.
"That's between Carlos and Coach Spurrier," Beamer acknowledged. "It's ultimately his decision. We have to do what Coach Spurrier thinks is best for our program and best for Carlos as a person. If Carlos comes back during spring practice, that's great. But, if Coach Spurrier doesn't think Carlos has earned the right to come back by the end of spring practice and we don't see him at all, that's OK too. We stand 100 percent behind any decision Coach Spurrier makes. Whatever the timetable is, we'll make it work."
Thomas, entering his final season with the Gamecocks, started seven games in 2007 and collected 17 tackles and six pass breakups.
As a senior, Stoney Woodson will be expected to take a leadership role with Munnerlyn and Thomas possibly unavailable. Woodson started three games last season and finished with 26 tackles and four pass breakups.
"He has a deep understanding of the entire defense," Beamer said. "We ask Stoney to do a lot. He'll be our nickel guy when we get an additional defensive back on the field. He's an older guy that's played a lot of football for us. He's kind of a coach on the field. We're certainly going to count on him from a leadership standpoint."
When Munnerlyn went down late last season, it forced Addison Williams to grow up quickly. The rising sophomore from Atlanta was quickly inserted into the lineup and had to perform in pressure-packed situations.
Williams had eight tackles and one pass breakup. Beamer hopes the early playing experience pays dividends for Williams this fall.
"This (spring) will be a great opportunity for Addison," Beamer said. "He played a little bit last year and he certainly needs to get more experience. Addison came into a tough situation and did well as a true freshman. We had some guys go down with injuries late. He was really thrown to the wolves in the Clemson game and that's tough for any true freshman. Coach Spurrier told Addison after last season that he had to get stronger. I think he feels he has a lot to prove."
Jamire Williams signed with USC in 2007 after a standout prep career at First Coast High School in Jacksonville, Fla, where he was a former teammate of 2008 signee Shaq Wilson. He was rated by Rivals as a three-star prospect, and turned down offers from Auburn, Florida, LSU and Tennessee to sign with the Gamecocks.
"We're looking forward to seeing what Jamire can do," Beamer said. "We're excited about him. We want to see what he brings to the table. He's had a great off-season in the weight room and running."
With Munnerlyn unable to run due to his injury, Jamire Williams ran the fastest 40 time (4.34) among the cornerbacks in recent testing.
"He can run, obviously. Now, we'll see how he matches up when he gets up there in 1-on-1 situations," Beamer said. "He's a great kid. He wants to be good and really learn and try to get better. He's always watching extra tape. He's got good size and speed, which are the two things you can't teach."
The possible absence of Thomas from multiple spring workouts should accelerate the development of true freshman Akeem Auguste, who signed with USC in 2007 but spent last fall at Fork Union Military Academy in Chatham, Va. working on his grades and test scores.
Rivals.com rated him the 14th best prep school prospect in the country.
Auguste was an acclaimed four-star prospect coming out of Chaminade-Madonna High School in Hollywood, Fla., where he made 10 interceptions and 114 tackles during his final two seasons.
"Akeem is one player I can't wait to see out there," Beamer said. "That year of prep school is great for players from a football standpoint and from a personal and academic standpoint. In that military school environment, he grew up in a hurry. He's done well in our early morning runs. We thought highly of him coming out of high school."
After handling the outside linebackers and sharing special teams duties with Fred Chatham last season, Beamer returns to coaching the position he mentored during his first two seasons (2004-2005) at Mississippi State under current USC defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson.
Even if Munnerlyn and Thomas stay off the field this spring, Beamer doesn't expect a significant drop-off in performance from the players behind them on the depth chart.
"We have some depth and talent. We've recruited well at that position," Beamer said. "Now we're looking for guys who can get out there and play. I've talked with them about that. We're going to play some nickel and dime coverages, so we're going to have some extra corners out there on the field."
After guiding three defensive backs to Freshman All-SEC accolades, Beamer moved to running backs coach in 2006 during his final year with Mississippi State. He believes his familiarity with Johnson will serve his well.
"It's exciting for me because I feel comfortable not having to learn a new system," Beamer said. "I know what Ellis wants and what he expects. I've known him for a long time. That's been good for me. Coach Cooper has done a great job with the secondary since he's had it. We have a lot of experience coming back, so I'm fortunate to walk into a good situation."
The scheme Johnson has brought to USC doesn't differ much from the scheme favored by Tyrone Nix the past two seasons, Beamer said. But there are enough differences to warrant a learning curve among the players.
"We're going to ask the corners to do a lot," Beamer said. "They'll be out there by themselves quite a bit in man coverage. We'll ask them to put a lot on their shoulders. They can't have any fear, and those guys certainly don't. Plus, they're going to be involved in the run and be in the box. There will be a lot of carryover and a lot of similarities. The biggest thing for them right now is learning the new terminology."
SPRING 2008 CORNERBACKS ROSTER:
* Indefinitely Suspended.
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