COLUMBIA -- Jasper Brinkley's knee had hurt for months. Now, his heart did, too.
It was December and South Carolina's injured all-Southeastern Conference linebacker learned his friend and mentor, defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix, was off to join Ole Miss. It was too much to bear, and Brinkley planned to leave as well.
Calm down, Nix counseled, rehab your injury, finish what you began and play like the terror you were before you got hurt. Turns out Nix's words were perhaps the best advice Brinkley had ever received.
"I'm part of a No. 1 defense right now," Brinkley said with pride. "It's something I've never been part of, so pretty much everything's followed through."
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Brinkley's the midfield centerpiece of South Carolina's defense, currently ranked No. 1 in the country among Football Bowl Subdivision schools.
While Brinkley, a chiseled 6-foot-2 and 269 pounds, doesn't have the dazzling stats he did before his injury, he's watched the Gamecocks' mistake-prone youngsters blossom into the Southeastern Conference's saltiest units.
"Honestly, guys, it's not me anymore, it's the whole defense," Brinkley said, smiling.
The Gamecocks (3-2, 0-2 SEC) play at Ole Miss (3-2, 1-1) on Saturday.
Brinkley and twin brother Casper came to South Carolina from Georgia Military College before the 2006 season. Jasper Brinkley was a sensation right from the start finishing fourth in the SEC with 107 tackles, five sacks and 14 1/2 stops behind the line of scrimmage.
Brinkley was on every national linebacker award watch list the following summer, then showed why early on. His first career interception sealed South Carolina's 16-12 upset at Georgia that seemed to point to big things ahead for the Gamecocks.
But two weeks later at LSU, Brinkley's season was done. He damaged knee ligaments on a soggy field and required surgery.
Coach Steve Spurrier and Jasper's brother Casper -- older by a minute -- immediately pointed the injured star toward next season.
Not that it was easy. Jasper felt left out at times as the Gamecocks rose to No. 6 in the country with a 6-1 start, then was powerless to stop the defense's collapse and the team's five-game slide that ended the season -- and most likely led Nix to leave.
Spurrier says he and Nix parted on good terms.
Spurrier at first hired Atlanta Falcons assistant Brian VanGorder to replace Nix, only to have the nomadic VanGorder go back to the NFL club as its defensive leader. By then, the deadline to declare for the NFL draft had passed Brinkley by.
"I was shocked," Brinkley said. "But like I said, everything happens for a reason."
Brinkley's worked hard to fit into the 4-2-5 alignment of new coordinator Ellis Johnson. Brinkley says the scheme funnels more plays to South Carolina's hard-hitting safeties, which is why Emanuel Cook leads the club with 37 tackles this year.
But Brinkley's production has improved along with his knee.
At first, Brinkley tried to fly around like he did before the injury with little success. He had only three tackles the first two games, including just one in a 24-17 loss to Vanderbilt when the Commodores continually ran the ball on the Gamecocks in a second-half rally Sept. 4.
"I think what was wrong the first couple of games, I was trying to do too much," Brinkley said. "I was not paying attention to my keys, just trying to freelance, I guess you could call it."
Brinkley has gradually found his stride. He tied for the team lead with seven stops in a 14-7 loss to then No. 2 Georgia.
"Assignment defense, Jap's been doing his job," Cook said. "All around great player, leader on the team, talks to everybody, great guy as well."
Cook says it has taken time for Brinkley to find his place in Johnson's defense. Two years ago, Brinkley had to make most stops for South Carolina to succeed. These days, he's got more than his share of help.
"I always said I wanted to be the one to make the plays," Brinkley said. "I still feel like that, but they always beat me to it."
Brinkley will take that every time if it means the Gamecocks' defense stays on top.