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August 12, 2008

South Carolina happy to have Brinkley back

MORE: No. 27 South Carolina | Many players fighting back from injury

South Carolina linebacker Jasper Brinkley doesn't need to say he's one of the SEC's most valuable players.

The numbers already speak loud and clear.

Brinkley tore a ligament in his right knee in the fourth game of the 2007 season, and the Gamecocks weren't the same without him. South Carolina allowed nearly twice as many points per game when Brinkley wasn't in the lineup. While the presence of Louisiana-Lafayette and South Carolina State on the Gamecocks' early-season schedule may have exaggerated that discrepancy, the hole in the middle of the defense was obvious after Brinkley got hurt.

Brinkley's absence took its toll late in the season. After being ranked as high as sixth in the nation midway through the season, the Gamecocks lost their final five games to finish 6-6 and didn't go to a bowl game.

"It was real tough for me," Brinkley said. "Being the competitor I am, I always want to be on the field. I never thought anything like this would happen to me. When it did happen, it was a heartbreaker. And watching my team go in a slump, a five-game losing streak, I kind of wanted to pull my hair out."

Now he finally gets to take out his frustrations on someone else.

Brinkley received a medical redshirt for the 2007 season that allowed him to play one more year. His knee also has healed to the point that Brinkley could repeat his '06 performance, when he recorded a team-high 107 tackles.

He feels as good as he ever has physically. Brinkley also feels fine mentally now that he has had time to deal with the anguish of having to sit out most of last season.

"Things happen for a reason," he said. "Things are looking up for me. I kind of think it did happen for a reason because I've come back feeling stronger than I ever was. I really haven't lost a step. It should be a great season."

Brinkley's teammates back up his assessment.

"I think Jasper's 100 percent," senior wide receiver Kenny McKinley said. "I know he's 100 percent."

Brinkley is ready to come back better than ever. He already seems bigger than ever.

South Carolina lists Brinkley at 6 feet 2 and 275 pounds, which makes him one of the heaviest linebackers in the nation. Brinkley indicated last month at SEC Media Days that he actually weighed 270 and that he expects to open the season at 268.

He will team with 6-1, 270-pound Eric Norwood a converted defensive end to give South Carolina one of the largest linebacker tandems in recent college football history.

Can these big bodies deliver big plays in the speed-oriented SEC? Brinkley isn't worried. "To be honest, we're quick like 225-pound linebackers," he said. "It's really not a big difference."

The Gamecocks are counting on Brinkley's presence to make a big difference in a defense that found itself on the wrong end of many Heisman Trophy highlight packages by the end of the season.

South Carolina's defense features plenty of big names. Captain Munnerlyn is one of the top cover corners in the Southeastern Conference. Norwood recorded a school-record 19.5 tackles for loss last season. Junior strong safety Emanuel Cook is considered one of the nation's hardest hitters.

But the Gamecocks' defense last season offered a case study in how sometimes the whole can be a lot less than the sum of its parts. South Carolina allowed 4.9 yards per carry to rank last in the SEC in run defense.

One week after South Carolina allowed Arkansas running back and eventual Heisman runner-up Darren McFadden to rush for 321 yards, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow arguably delivered a Heisman-clinching performance by running for five touchdowns at South Carolina. The Gamecocks lost 48-36 to South Carolina and 51-31 to Florida.

Injuries caused part of the problem. Cook missed the season opener with an appendectomy. Munnerlyn sat out the last two games with a foot injury. An injured left knee knocked out defensive lineman Nathan Pepper for the last nine games of the year.

The injury to Brinkley was the toughest loss of all.

THE MISSING 'BRINK'
South Carolina's defense wasn't quite the same last year after linebacker Jasper Brinkley suffered a season-ending knee injury during the fourth game. Here's a look at the Gamecocks' defensive statistics in the four games Brinkley played and during the rest of the season:
CategoryYards per gamePoints per gameRecord
With Brinkley 320.0 14.3 3-1
Without Brinkley 407.0 28.3 3-5
"Hopefully, Jasper's going to be crucial to (helping us) make some tackles," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. "As you know, we needed help with tackling last year. Jasper led the team (in tackles) two years ago. He's ready to go. Hopefully he'll stay healthy the entire year, but the other guys have got to play, too."

Perhaps the Gamecocks depended a little too much on Brinkley in the past. Brinkley compiled more than twice as many tackles as any of his teammates two years ago in his debut season at South Carolina as a transfer from Georgia Military College. He continued his big-play ability last season by making a game-clinching interception on the final play of a 16-12 upset of Georgia.

He expects that big-play ability to return this fall. Brinkley insists he won't let any doubt creep into his psyche by worrying about his chances of getting hurt again.

"I trust (that with) everything they did to my knee to get it right after surgery, I'll be back to tip-top shape," he said. "Once you worry about things like that, you're going to get hurt again. I'm just going to go out here with a clear mind and not worry about it, and try to play relentless like I used to play."

South Carolina's chances of contending for an SEC title depend in part on whether Brinkley's defensive teammates share that relentless attitude.

South Carolina is betting on new coordinator Ellis Johnson to make all the Gamecocks not just Brinkley more accountable. Johnson spent the past four seasons as the defensive coordinator at Mississippi State, which ranked seventh in the nation in pass defense in '07.

Johnson's no-nonsense approach already has made an impact.

"(He brings) a lot more mental toughness and a lot more physical toughness," Brinkley said. "We know for a fact we're going to run to the ball. We tried it on him in the spring. We didn't run to the ball, and he showed us his way, how he wants things to be done. If they're not done his way, we felt his wrath."

Brinkley can't wait to make the rest of the SEC start feeling his wrath again.

WHERE'D HE GO?

Even though South Carolina linebacker Jasper Brinkley insists his recovery from a knee injury won't change the way he plays this season, something will be different about him.

His twin won't be playing alongside him.

Jasper and Casper played together on the Thomson High School team that won a 2002 Georgia state championship. They followed the same path from Thomson to Georgia Military College to South Carolina.

Now they're finally on different teams. Casper Brinkley, a former Gamecocks defensive lineman, is in his first NFL training camp after signing as a free agent with the Carolina Panthers.

"We were always side by side," Jasper Brinkley said. "Whenever you saw him, you saw me."

Although the Brinkleys are on different teams, they're never far from each other. Jasper said he talks to his brother at least three times a day.

"God's blessing me, man," Jasper Brinkley said. "My brother had an opportunity to continue playing. Everyone wants to see that name flash across the screen on draft day, and it didn't happen. But fortunately he still has an opportunity to continue playing ball as a free agent. He's very excited about the situation."

MORE: No. 27 South Carolina | Many players fighting back from injury

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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