College Sports

USC's N.C. natives eager for homecoming

COLUMBIA -- Web Brown slouched in his seat and said yeah, he holds a slight grudge against North Carolina, No. 7 South Carolina's opponent Saturday.

"It's a big game for me because that's the school I looked at early on in the recruiting process and kind of felt like they really didn't want me there," Brown said. "But it's all in good fun."

But fun can be mixed with attitude, and several of the Gamecocks, while pleased to be returning home Saturday, say they're shelving the reunion until after the game.

"I told them to get ready for the game, typical stuff that you'd say before a game," said receiver/starting kick returner Chris Culliver, who saw a few UNC players when he went home last week. "We had a fun time."

The Gamecocks have 16 players from the Tar Heel state on their roster, including five starters. Assistant coaches Brad Lawing and Fred Chatham each logged time as UNC assistants and helped work North Carolina during last season's recruiting push, which benefited the Gamecocks tremendously.

Taking advantage of a transitional year at UNC (coach John Bunting was fired and Butch Davis was brought in), USC convinced eight North Carolinians to come south of the border and play football. Five (Culliver, Jason Barnes, Melvin Ingram, Travian Robertson and Weslye Saunders) have been on the field a good bit this year.

Then there's the others (Brown, Andy Boyd, Ryan Succop and Marque Hall) who were already starters. North Carolina gave USC as many players as Georgia did this year.

"I was pretty close to signing there," said Saunders, a freshman from Durham, N.C., whose uncle teaches at UNC. "I had the signing sheets in front of my face and almost signed. But I stuck with my commitment to South Carolina."

Brown, from Boonville, N.C., said it would be nice to play in front of his home-state fans, but took it further relating his recruitment story. According to him, Brown originally committed to East Carolina but once that staff had a shakeup, some schools got re-involved.

One of them was UNC. Brown said Bunting offered him a scholarship but then took it away.

"They did for four days and it was taken away for some reason and the past is the past now and I'm grateful for all the opportunities I've had here," Brown said. "I always kind of felt that North Carolina kind of offered just to make up. Maybe they didn't want to lose a home-state guy or whatever, but I always felt at home when I came down here."

Saunders said he used to attend UNC football games all the time when he was growing up, cheering for past Tar Heel stars Julius Peppers, Alge Crumpler and Ronald Curry. But when it came time to pick a place to play, Saunders elected to leave.

"I'd been there all my life," he said. "North Carolina is about seven minutes away from my house, and I've been going there since I was 3 years old. So I needed to get away from that area."

Saunders estimated he knows around two dozen of the Tar Heels and was looking forward to the game. He's already talked to some of the Heels -- since the Gamecocks played on a Thursday last week, many players took a day off and went home.

Saunders went back and heard all of the UNC supporters he'd grown up around talking about the Tar Heels' big win over Miami. He figured that was good, since it was adding a little more intensity to this week.

"Totally different playing in front of all my family and friends and everybody who was expecting me to go to North Carolina," he said. "So it's something personal here with this one."

Brown and Saunders each discussed the "Carolina" angle, saying they'd grown up hearing it and thinking of UNC. Since they've come to Columbia, though, they've had to change their opinion.

"Depends on what state you're from," Brown said. "If you're in North Carolina, it's UNC. If you're in South Carolina, it's South Carolina.

"I guess wherever your heart is, that's the Carolina you're going to pull for, and for me, that's South Carolina."