After finishing first and third on South Carolina in tackles last season, what should strong safety Emanuel Cook and free safety Darian Stewart do for an encore?
How about becoming the best safety tandem in the SEC?
Considering both players still have two years of eligibility remaining entering the 2008 season, it's entirely possible the duo can reach that elite level.
Cook (team-high 92 tackles in essentially 10 games) and Stewart (68 tackles) enjoyed solid seasons in 2007. Cook was named Second-Team All-SEC by the Associated Press and has established a well-deserved reputation as one of the hardest-hitters in the conference despite his supposedly small physical stature (5-foot-10, 211 pounds).
Nearly 84 percent of Cook's tackles were solo stops, and he also logged four quarterback sacks and eight tackles for loss, third highest on the club.
While Cook is one of USC's best run-stoppers, safety coach Ron Cooper wants him to work on improving his pass coverage skills when USC opens spring practice on March 19.
"He's a great tackler and he loves to play the run," said Cooper, who is splitting secondary coaching duties with Shane Beamer this season. Beamer will mentor the cornerbacks.
"I think he can improve in his pass coverage and improve in both zone coverage aspects and man coverage aspects. He's going to keep getting better. I'm pleased he's healthy."
Cook, who missed the season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette and played just a few plays the following week at Georgia because of an appendectomy in late August, also tied for the team lead with three interceptions and helped the Gamecocks' pass defense rank fifth in the nation.
He ranked sixth in the SEC by averaging 8.4 tackles per game, including a career-high 11 stops against both LSU and Vanderbilt
"Emanuel can do a lot of things," Cooper said. "He'll come down in the box and play like a linebacker. If there's a part where we really need to concentrate on with him it's his zone coverage and man coverage techniques."
After playing sporadically in 2006, Stewart emerged last season as one of the most aggressive players on USC's defense. His unofficial 'coming out' party came in the 16-12 victory over Georgia when he led the Gamecocks with nine tackles.
Stewart averaged 5.7 tackles over the final 10 games, including eight against Arkansas, and led USC with seven pass breakups while recovering two fumbles and forcing two fumbles.
"Darian probably made the biggest strides in a year of anybody that I've been around," Cooper said. "I'm pleased with him. He has to get better overall in learning the scheme. The free safety is sort of the quarterback back there. I want him to take it to another level in terms of knowing what's in front of him, what's around him, and knowing every check and every disguise we have and understanding the entire scheme."
Cooper believes the secret could be out around the SEC on Cook and Stewart by the time the 2008 season concludes.
"I think both of them can be really good players this year for us," Cooper said. "They have the opportunity to play together for a third year. Yeah, between the two of them, I do think we could have two of the better safeties in the conference. They're both talented, they're both tough, they both like to tackle. When you play safety and you have those qualities, you usually can do some good things on defense. They both have size and they both can run."
The departures of Chris Hampton and Brandon Isaac leave the safety position depleted of experienced depth. Right now, the backups to Cook and Stewart are expected to include junior Chris Hail, who played sparingly last season (eight games) and finished with eight tackles, and true freshmen Antonio Allen and Jay Spearman.
"Brandon was injured most of the year, but he did us a favor by sticking around and playing when he easily he could have bowed out and had surgery," Cooper said. "We need guys to step up. Chris was a backup to Emanuel and Darian, but he was always in position and he knew the scheme like a coach did."
Senior Stoney Woodson played both cornerback and safety last season, but with Carlos Thomas likely to miss practice time due to an indefinite suspension imposed by head coach Steve Spurrier earlier this week, the Tampa, Fla. native will start out at cornerback this spring
Hail played two positions as a true freshman in 2006, making three receptions as a wide receiver, before personal issues stymied his progress last season. Most of his action has come on special teams.
"Chris is the only other safety we have that has played in a game," Cooper said. "He didn't play that much, but Chris can run. He has the ability to play the ball in the air. Improvement-wise, he has to make sure by the end of the spring that he's a sure tackler. He's probably one of the rawest guys we have among all the corners and safeties that are returning."
Both Allen and Spearman enrolled at USC in January.
Allen signed with USC in February of 2007 but academic concerns forced him to spend a semester at Fork Union Military Academy in Chatham, Va. Allen has good size (6-2, 190 pounds) for a SEC safety.
Spearman graduated early from Greenwood High School, where he racked up 1,300 all-purpose yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior. He represented the Palmetto State as a member of the Shrine Bowl team.
"They both have good speed and agility," Cooper said when asked about Allen and Spearman. "They were both good players in high school. We have to make sure we take our time and understand they're both true freshman."
The sixth candidate for playing time, according to Cooper, is walk-on Blake Baxley, a 5-foot-11, 210 pound junior from Lexington, S.C. Baxley was a member of the Gamecocks last season.
"Blake came out last year and he has some size and he's shown toughness," Cooper said. "This is the first time he's been in the mix by understanding the scheme and knowing everything. I'm pleased with the way he's worked in the off-season. With Blake, we have six guys that will rotate and play and try to learn the new scheme at safety.
Signees Jarrett Burns (6-3, 185 pounds) of Huntsville, Ala. and Darrell Simmons of College Park, Ga. will join the program this summer.
Burns, a high school teammate of Stewart, was an all-city and all-region selection at Lee High School, Cooper's alma mater.
Simmons was a highly-sought after prospect out of Banneker High School in College Park, Ga., where he was a former teammate of Thomas, Ladi Ajiboye and Addison Williams.
2008 SPRING SAFETY ROSTER
Antonio Allen (6-2, 190, Ocala, Fla.)
Blake Baxley** (5-11, 210, Lexington, SC)
Emanuel Cook (5-10, 211, Riviera Beach, Fla.)
Chris Hail (5-10, 191, Lovejoy, Ga.)
Jay Spearman (6-0, 187 pounds, Greenwood, SC)
Darian Stewart (5-11, 216, Huntsville, Ala.)
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