College Sports

Banged-up secondary trying to remain best against pass in SEC

COLUMBIA -- Captain Munnerlyn shook his head.

"It's a little ... flu going on in the secondary," he said. "All the guys are telling me to just stay healthy and God just kept my bones healthy and I'm just trying to keep working hard in the weight room."

South Carolina's sophomore cornerback was speaking for all of his defensive back teammates. They've combined to post the best pass defense in the SEC (third nationally), but it's getting tougher and tougher to stay there.

Injuries knocked out starting corner Carlos Thomas and backup free safety Stoney Woodson before last week's game and starting free safety Darian Stewart sprained his knee during it. Backup corner Brandon Isaac's been fighting a sore shoulder for the past month and backups Mike West and Chris Hampton have had to work overtime.

The results are still good, but none of them have any desire to repeat what happened last week. North Carolina had two shots at the game-tying touchdown and it was up to the defensive backs to swat away the jump balls.

They got some help from receivers Kenny McKinley and Jared Cook and everything turned out OK.

But the road only gets harder, in terms of opponents and getting over the bang-ups.

"The day you let off in the weight room, it'll hurt you, so I'm trying to keep working hard in the weight room and keep strong bones," said Munnerlyn, the only starter who's been able to escape the injury bug. "I'm real physical and I'm just playing the receiver real close, even the tall ones."

The No. 6 Gamecocks (6-1, 3-1 SEC) head into Saturday's game hosting Vanderbilt with the secondary in flux. Coach Steve Spurrier said Thomas should be fully recovered from a neck injury that landed him in the hospital last week and Stewart should also be OK.

Woodson's still limping at practice so he may not play and Isaac's still feeling the effects of a separated shoulder he picked up a month ago. Emanuel Cook, the team's leader with 46 tackles who missed the season-opener with appendicitis, said it shouldn't be a problem as long as everybody who gets on the field contributes.

"I felt like we showed a lot of heart in the first half but North Carolina showed a lot of heart in the second half, more than we did," Cook said. "I felt they really wanted it and some of us probably shied away from it."

They can't afford a lapse like that Saturday. The Commodores (3-3, 1-3) don't look that intimidating until one realizes two of their losses were by 14 points to Alabama and three points to Georgia.

Plus, Vandy has its own star who's used to having his way with opposing secondaries. Junior receiver Earl Bennett is only four catches shy of becoming the SEC's career leader and is second in the league with 88.3 yards per game.

USC needs no introduction to Bennett -- as a freshman two years ago, Bennett posted 204 yards against the Gamecocks. They wised up last year in a 31-13 win, blanketing him off the line and limiting him to 16 yards on four catches.

Munnerlyn saw plenty of Bennett last year and said the plan may be the same as it was then. USC ran a lot of man coverage and it seemed to work, as the Gamecocks came up with several defensive stops and rolled to a 31-13 win.

"He's a great receiver, he can jump, he's physical, he runs great routes, so we're going to see," Munnerlyn said. "I hope we can contain him this year."