COLUMBIA -- A month before signing day, South Carolina has secured arguably its two biggest commitments from players already on the roster.
Middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley and all-SEC receiver Kenny McKinley confirmed their intentions to return to USC for their final seasons Thursday when reached by phone.
Neither is expected to participate much in spring practice while continuing to rehab following surgeries. But that is of little concern to a coaching staff that has seen four players leave early for the NFL since Steve Spurrier arrived before the 2005 season.
After watching the wave of televised bowl games, McKinley said he and Brinkley talked excitedly Thursday about the Gamecocks' chances in 2008. After rising to a No. 6 national ranking with a 6-1 start this season, USC (6-6) lost its final five games and did not receive a bowl bid.
"Hopefully, next year we'll be in one of these big bowls," said McKinley, who underwent surgery to correct turf toe on his right foot last month. "(Brinkley) was just telling me next year how good he feels the team's going to be. Hopefully, it will come back around like it was at the beginning of this year, and we'll finish off strong."
Brinkley and McKinley hope to bounce back from their surgeries to put the finishing touches on strong careers. Both indicated previously they intended to return but had considered a jump to the NFL in recent weeks.
Brinkley, an all-SEC selection in 2006 who missed most of this season after tearing his right lateral collateral ligament against LSU, considered following Tyrone Nix out of Columbia when the former defensive coordinator took the same post at Ole Miss last month.
But Nix, who coached the Gamecocks' linebackers, called Brinkley shortly after accepting Houston Nutt's offer at Ole Miss and told Brinkley he would be better off getting his knee healthy and playing another season.
"Honestly, I did think about leaving when coach Nix said he was gone because we had a father-son type relationship," Brinkley said. "But he talked to me and said the best thing for me to do is to come back to school."
Brinkley, a senior from Thomson, Ga., visited new USC defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder at the Atlanta Falcons' complex before the holidays. Brinkley said he was in Atlanta working with a physical therapist when VanGorder called his cell; the two agreed to meet at the Falcons' facility in Flowery Branch, Ga.
"It went real good," Brinkley said. "We were talking about some things we could do to better the team next year."
Brinkley, USC's leading tackler at the time of his injury, is confident he will develop a close bond with VanGorder, the Falcons' linebackers coach this season and Georgia's defensive coordinator from 2001-04.
Brinkley never filled out the necessary paperwork to be evaluated by the NFL's underclassmen advisory committee, saying he was more concerned with rehabbing his knee.
McKinley, an all-conference selection after setting a school record with 77 receptions for 968 yards and nine touchdowns, said the advisory committee projected him as a late fourth-round pick. The junior from Mableton, Ga., has a chance to improve his draft status and break all of USC's major receiving records by returning for his senior season.
McKinley needs 17 catches and 359 receiving yards to surpass Sterling Sharpe as the career leader in both categories. He is eight touchdown receptions shy of the mark held by Sidney Rice, who bolted to the NFL in 2007 with two years of eligibility remaining.
While calling it one of the toughest decisions of his life, McKinley said the biggest motivator for returning to school was the opportunity to win USC's first SEC championship.
McKinley said he recently spoke with former USC tailback Cory Boyd, who told his ex-teammate about the intense training he has undertaken in Ohio preparing for the NFL draft. Defensive end Casper Brinkley, Jasper's twin brother, has been following a similar regimen in Pensacola, Fla.
"I told Jap, 'We need to start working like that now,"' McKinley said. "I'm going to be pushing everybody. We're going to be a force to be reckoned with next year. If I was a betting man, I'd bet on us next year."
Brinkley also believes staying in school will improve his draft stock -- as well as the Gamecocks' fortunes.
"I've just got to get back on the field and get back to my old self," he said. "The sky's the limit."