This time of year many Juniors have a tough decision to make: return to college or enter the NFL draft. Stephon Gilmore, D.J. Swearinger, and DeVonte Holloman are among several Gamecocks that must make that decision. Holloman says he will be returning next fall, and Lorenzo Ward believes the other two will as well.
One of the reasons tenth-ranked South Carolina won 10 games for just the second time in school history has been the play of the defense, particularly the secondary. The Gamecocks finished second in the conference in pass defense, giving up just 133 yards per game. Carolina also finished in a tie with LSU in interceptions with 18, but played one less game.
Three of the players that made the biggest impact in the secondary are cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safeties DeVonte Holloman and D.J. Swearing. All three were part of the highly-touted 2009 recruiting class and all are eligible to enter the NFL draft this season and forgo their senior season.
All three would have plenty of reasons to do so.
Stephon Gilmore earned 2009 Freshman All-American honors after finishing fifth on the team with 56 tackles, three sacks, one interception, forced two fumbles, recovered two fumbles, and broke up eight passes. In 2010, Gilmore earned third-team All-American honors after leading the team with 79 tackles, had three sacks, intercepted three passes, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble, and broke up two passes. In 2011, Gilmore has 41 tackles, a sack, three interceptions, one forced fumble, one recovered fumble, and broke up seven passes.
According to defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, Gilmore should be back in the Garnet & Black in 2012.
“We’ll wait until we get his evaluation and he’ll sit down with his family and then visit with us as coaches,” Ward said. “I think Stephon will make the right decision and in my heart I think Stephon will be back.”
Gilmore, who struggled with getting beat on deep passes in 2010, bounced back nicely in 2011 to lead the secondary back to prominence after being one of the worst in the country last season. That would be enough for most to go pro, but Ward feels like Gilmore is enjoying himself in college.
“I just think Stephon enjoys playing college football,” Ward said. “If he comes back with a first-round grade then I think he will leave, but if it’s not the first or second round then I think he will come back.”
Swearinger enjoyed a breakout season in 2011 after playing sparingly in all of the games in 2009 and 2010. Swearinger finished second on the team in tackles with 73, intercepted three passes – including two big potential game-saving picks against Mississippi State and Tennessee – and broke up three passes.
Holloman has taken a similar path as Swearinger, playing sparingly in all games his freshman year, before earning a starting position at safety in 2010, starting in 10 of the 14 games. In 2011 Holloman was briefly moved to Spur, but with Antonio Allen’s spectacular season Holloman was moved back to safety. Holloman finished with 47 tackles, an interception, and broke up three passes. Holloman says he will definitely be back in 2012.
“Coach Spurrier encourages all of the juniors to send their paperwork in just to get an evaluation, but I really believe deep down both of those young men will be back playing college football for Carolina next season,” Ward said.
Returning three seniors next season, along with the development of younger players, would make for a tremendous secondary in 2012.
“If all three of them left then I think we’ll be okay,” Ward said. “You’ll love to have them back because you’ll have a lot of experienced guys, but we’ll let them do what’s best for themselves and for their families. In this line of business you’ll have guys that will leave early and you’ll have guys that will stay. We’ll see how the ball rolls out but I feel good about all of them.”
Two players that won’t be returning in the secondary next season are cornerback Martay Mattox and safety Corey Addison.
After enrolling early and having a successful spring camp, Mattox was listed as the back-up to Akeem Auguste. However, coaches felt it would be more beneficial to redshirt Mattox, a decision Mattox thought was wrong.
“There’s no question Martay had a lot of ability and I told him that,” Ward said. “I know coming out of high school sometimes you’re a superstar and you get to college and you think you should go in there and play also. Sometimes there’s a timetable for any young man. I remember coming out of high school being a cornerback just like Martay going to Alabama I thought the worst think that could happen would be redshirting. In life it was the best thing that could happen.”
Addison redshirted in 2009 and has played briefly each of the last two seasons. In 2010 Addison appeared in seven games and recorded seven tackles. This season Addison appeared in five games, recording just three tackles.
“Corey hasn’t had a lot of success in playing here,” Ward said. “One thing you want to make sure in life is that when you’re through playing this game that you feel like you’ve done the best you can do. He felt like he can play at a different level so he definitely had our blessing to go.”