COLUMBIA -- There's never been a question of whether Marvin Sapp can play football.
The question has been "Is Marvin Sapp a football player?"
The difference comes from looking at an athlete who is equipped to handle the fundamentals of his position. A guy that can play football is strong and quick.
A football player has to be much more -- smart, fearless, full of heart and desire, those intangibles that can't be taught. Coaches hope every starter has a mix of the two sides.
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Jasper Brinkley, South Carolina's no-nonsense middle linebacker, has all of it. But he's gone, shelved for the year with a knee injury and depriving the Gamecocks of their best playmaker.
Sapp, the junior who's plugged into Brinkley's spot Saturday against Mississippi State, says he's ready to step into the rather large shoes left for him. At 5-foot-11 and 222 pounds, freakishly strong (he can squat 525 pounds) and fast -- he was second on the team last year with 51 tackles -- Sapp certainly looks the first part.
But looks won't cut it come Saturday.
"Of course it won't be the same because Jasper's not in there," Sapp said. "But we adjust. One of the adjustments is letting me step in and play my role as middle linebacker."
Sapp has mostly had a wonderful attitude in his three years with the Gamecocks, only pouting a little bit when he lost his starting job to Brinkley a year ago. Coaches have praised his strength and desire and had no hesitation sticking him into the vacant spot.
But the things Brinkley brought -- flying to the ball, always making the big play, hitting opposing running backs like a freight train -- that's where Sapp has to prove himself. Everybody knows he can tackle, but can he change the game?
"I think he's the quickest linebacker we've got," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn declared. "He's just got to learn his plays and get everything down pat and play with confidence. He looks like he can play football."
When the team heard about Brinkley, Sapp was going around telling his teammates he could handle it, no problem. He spoke with a quiet confidence after practice this week, not boasting of his skills or offering the snazzy quotes, but simply stating he could do the job.
"I played inside last year and my coaches expect me to play like I've been playing," Sapp said. "They have confidence in me to play "Mike" as best as I can."
The middle of the Gamecocks' defensive scheme has been abused this year, even with Brinkley. Opposing rushing stats are a hefty 216.5 yards per game.
Mississippi State, featuring a trio of running backs and two mobile quarterbacks, is expected to run right at the Gamecocks on Saturday, Sapp in particular. It makes sense -- throw everything you've got at the new guy and see if he can handle it.
Sapp said it's not a problem. Again speaking without bragging, Sapp replied, "Well, if they're going to do it, I mean, let them do it. I'm just going to have fun out there and play my assignments."
He's also been working on his leadership skills. Brinkley wasn't a very vocal guy, but he barked the signals on the field and was the guy everybody looked to.
Sapp's not the oldest defensive player and hasn't started a lot of games. But he's the one who's got to make the call.
"My challenge would be to take a lead of the defense and to take charge like Jasper did take charge of the defense," Sapp said. "But I love to play football."
Everyone will find out Saturday if the love for the game is enough to turn Sapp into a football player. Playing football, especially at his position, won't be enough if the Gamecocks expect to keep the season alive.
"I'm not nervous. I'm just anxious to play," Sapp said. "I've got to count on my teammates just as much as they have to count on me."
WANT TO GO?
MISSISSIPPI STATE (3-1, 1-1 SEC) at NO. 16 SOUTH CAROLINA (3-1, 1-1)
• When: 12:30 p.m. Saturday
• Where: Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia
• TV: CBS (cable channel 5 in Rock Hill)
• Tickets: 1-800-4SC-FANS