Throughout the season, GamecockCentral.com will examine the five biggest individual matchups of the upcoming game. This week's opponent is Southern Miss.
TODAY: WR DeAndre Brown vs. CB Chris Culliver
Chris Culliver knows he has something to prove.
He'll get his first chance on Thursday.
Culliver is athletic and versatile enough to get a look at the next level after the 2010 season, which is why he filed for an NFL projection after last season. It came back and told him what he already knew - great potential, but needs some help to really be a hot commodity on the draft board.
With one season left, he aims to get there.
"I saw other guys in front of me when I was younger, pushing me and telling me to go harder," Culliver said. "Once you know this is your senior year, you can't come back after this. You want to be more vocal and more into the team."
Culliver has been a mainstay on the field during his previous three years, playing almost every snap and becoming South Carolina's career leader in kickoff returns and return yardage. He has played hard and played well, but when Culliver's name is brought up, there's always that, "Yeah, but … " factor.
Ever since he returned to defense after a short-lived experiment at receiver, the former five-star recruit has been solid. Perhaps not spectacular, but solid.
It's been his own fault that his spectacular moments are remembered for all of the wrong reasons.
In 2008, with USC wrapping up a win over Arkansas, Culliver was ejected for throwing punches after an on-the-field scuffle. Coach Steve Spurrier labeled it "unbelievably selfish" and the punishment from the SEC was to sit Culliver for the first half of the next game, which was at Florida.
Then last year at Tennessee, a bad game led to another black mark on Culliver's record. He injured his left shoulder, which had had surgery during the previous offseason, before the game and didn't tell the coaching staff. It was obvious Culliver was protecting the sore shoulder on his angles, which led to a couple of UT scores because of shoddy tackling.
Although Ellis Johnson defended Culliver for playing so well throughout the year, he and Spurrier were less than pleased on the following Monday. That's when Culliver, ire raised, told the coaches he would walk out of practice if his effort was being questioned. They said it was.
He left practice and Spurrier left him at home for the next week's trip to Arkansas as punishment.
It hit home for Culliver, who has reported to camp with a wonderful attitude, the same one that has been present for 95 percent of his time at USC. "Just being more of a leader," he described. "Just talk to the guys, stay positive, keep everybody in line. Keep them from doing the wrong thing and keep doing the right thing."
And that's what USC needs from him, along with his defensive skills. Culliver will be one of the main players entrusted with stopping Southern Miss' best deep threat, wide receiver DeAndre Brown.
USM lost its top two rushers from a year ago and are welcoming their best passing quarterback, Austin Davis, back from a foot injury that cost him half of 2009. Brown, who missed more than a year with a broken leg, is fully healthy and the Golden Eagles will probably want to take it right to the Gamecocks' defense.
Culliver reckons to be one of the first to be challenged. It makes sense to think that USM clearly knows of Stephon Gilmore at the other corner spot, which means they will probably try to stay away from him. That pushes the action to the other corner spot, where Culliver has taken over after playing free safety last year.
The thinking was that Culliver's massive experience will put him in a spot where he doesn't have to be the last-ditch option to stop a ball-carrier. Plus, playing him on the boundary will keep his shoulders (again surgically repaired) from taking too much of a pounding.
Brown, a 6-foot-6 burner who is already being called the best receiver, if not player, in Conference-USA, will be coming down the field with some authority. If USC's defensive front can't get to Davis and he is allowed to sit back and throw, he'll likely try to find Brown.
Brown caught 1,117 yards worth of balls in 2008 before he suffered a gruesome injury in the Eagles' bowl game. The leg healed enough to get Brown on the field for 11 games in 2009, where he caught 47 passes for 785 yards and nine touchdowns, but he seemed to be lacking a half-step.
He has it back now. If the pass is to Culliver's side of the field, Culliver must be ready.
Ready to show Brown how an SEC defender hits. Ready to show Brown that those nine passes broken up last year are going to become a lot more than the zero interceptions Culliver had last year. Ready to shut off the lane, drive his repaired shoulders into Brown's midsection and prove to everybody at Williams-Brice Stadium that Culliver is indeed back.
"Chris has been having a great summer and camp," cornerbacks coach Lorenzo Ward said during the preseason. "And that's good to see. We need his leadership out there."
"That's what I want to do," Culliver said. "Something that I took on a lot since I've been here. More of a developing role instead of somebody just telling you, 'You're the leader,' or something like that.
"Everybody wants to learn, everybody wants to get better, everybody wants to make plays and compete for their position. Just taking it forward."
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