Rodney Paulk was a tackling machine in high school.
Now he hopes to do the same thing to South Carolina's opponents this fall as a true freshman.
As a starting outside linebacker for the Gamecocks.
Far-fetched? Steve Spurrier certainly doesn't think so, based on his recent comments about one of his prized recruits of the Class of 2006.
Spurrier praised Paulk for his work ethic at last Thursday's press conference, suggesting that the 6-foot, 208-pound product of Richland Northeast High School could rapidly move up the depth chart – and possibly earn a starting spot – if he maintains his intensity and focus.
That's music to Paulk's ears.
"I'm glad that Coach Spurrier is going to give me the opportunity as a freshman to come in and start right away," Paulk said. "Now it's my time to take advantage of it by going out there and performing well."
Paulk hopes to add about seven to 12 pounds to his frame and increase his body weight to between 215 to 220 pounds before the start of fall camp in early August.
Paulk knows he'll need the added pounds to meet the physical challenge of competing on a week-to-week basis in the SEC.
"I feel I'm ready. We'll see when the time comes," Paulk said. "The incoming class feels like we weren't recruited to sit on the bench but to play right away. So that's what we're going to try to do."
Paulk – who won't turn 18 until September - has been making the commute every day from his home in Northeast Columbia to Williams-Brice Stadium to join current Gamecock players in their summer workouts.
"Right after graduation I started working out on my own according to the plan they gave me," Paulk said. "About three weeks ago I started working out with the team and with Coach (Mark) Smith. It was pretty tough at first but I was able to hang in with them. I'm starting to fit in pretty well."
The faster pace and greater intensity of the workouts at the Division I level compared to high school was something Paulk had to get comfortable with.
"It's a whole lot more intense," said Paulk, who said he has been joined by incoming freshman wide receiver Moe Brown of Anderson, S.C., at most of the workouts. "You have to adjust to it but once you adjust it comes naturally."
Paulk's relationships with his probable position coach – outside linebackers coach Dave Wommack – and USC defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix have been extremely positive, he says.
Nix took over as Paulk's primary recruiter after former recruiting coordinator Rick Stockstill left USC last December to take the head coaching position at Middle Tennessee State.
"They're real good guys and both are great coaches," said Paulk, who has already spent considerable time studying the defensive playbook. "I think I have a real good understanding of the system right now."
While Paulk's most likely destination is outside linebacker, he hasn't given up on seeing some action at inside linebacker as well.
"They've been talking about playing me at outside linebacker but they could also move me inside," Paulk said. "There's still a question as to which position I'll be playing. If I played outside, I'll be in pass coverage more. In high school, I was more of a run-stopper. I'm still thinking about which position I want. Whichever one they play me at, I'll do my best at that position."
If Paulk stays at outside linebacker, he will battle Marvin Sapp, Brent Davis, Gerrod Sinclair and Yvan Banag for playing time.
It's a battle Paulk – who will take one or two classes during the second session of summer school – believes he can win.
Junior college transfer Jasper Brinkley is currently listed as the first-team middle linebacker in USC's conventional 4-3 defensive scheme.
Paulk was one of the most heavily recruited players from South Carolina after leading Richland Northeast as far as the Class 4A, Division II championship game. He finished his senior season with an astounding 174 tackles – an average of 11.7 per game - and 13 sacks.
Rivals.com ranked Paulk as the No. 9 player in the Palmetto State and the No. 19 inside linebacker prospect in the nation.
Based on those numbers, it wasn't a surprise when Paulk was selected for the South Carolina Shrine Bowl team along with future USC teammates Garrett Anderson, Nick Prochak and Moe Brown.
"It was a great opportunity since it's the best bowl game in the Carolinas," Paulk said. "It was a real big achievement (to be selected). I was real happy. My family was real happy. It was a great experience."
He was also a finalist for the state's Mr. Football award
Paulk could be the first of a long line of talented Richland Northeast players to join the Gamecocks. Defensive back Gary Gray has verbally committed to USC, while wide receiver Mark Barnes has the Gamecocks among his favorites.
"We've been working Mark hard," Paulk said. "We're trying to get him down there too. We're all pieces to the puzzle, we're all connected."
Paulk won't be the first member of his family to play for Steve Spurrier. His cousin – Tim Paulk – was an All-SEC linebacker for Florida in 1990 and 1991.
USC fans hope Paulk will earn similar honors by the time his Gamecock career is finished.
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