Position: Defensive tackle
Hometown: Conyers, Ga.
Last year: Clemson’s co-defensive player of the year (8.5 tackles for loss, 20 solo tackles)
While you’re traveling, they’re training.
Position: Free safety
Hometown: Cairo, Ga.
Last year: eight games, 13 tackles (eight solo)
While you’re poolside, they’re preparing.
While you’re cooking out and lighting firecrackers at Fourth of July barbecues, they’re eating the right foods and wearing out weight rooms, keeping themselves in tiptop shape for this fall.
There’s no true offseason for college football players dreaming the dream of a Heisman Trophy or BCS National Championship.
While there’s no doubt the majority of 85 Gamecocks and 85 Tigers on scholarship are grinding away in the offseason to fulfill great expectations for 2013, it’s also clear some players and coaches matter more than others.
Since South Carolina and Clemson have high hopes for this upcoming season – and their fans can’t wait to see what unfolds – we have compiled our picks for which 12 Tigers and 12 Gamecocks will have the greatest impact on their respective team’s 2013 campaigns.
We’ll count them down starting Wednesday with the 12th most important player for each team, and conclude the series July 7 with the No. 1 players.
CLEMSON’S No. 12
GRADY JARRETT, JUNIOR, NOSE GUARD
Bend-but-don’t-break is one of those generous terms used to describe defenses that give up higher proportions of yards than they do points. Clemson would fall in that category in 2012 — ranking seventh in the ACC in total defense (396.5 yards per game) but third in scoring defense (24.8 points.) If there’s an area defensive coordinator Brent Venables would like to shore up, rushing defense is a good place to pinpoint because 156 yards a clip to opposing running games simply won’t do.
That’s why Grady Jarrett is a critical cog in the experienced front seven this fall. The less-ballyhooed of Clemson’s run-stuffers besides Josh Watson, Jarrett has proven he can make plays happen — only Jonathan Willard, the Tigers’ leading 2012 tackler, had more than Jarrett’s 8.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
He’s smaller than your average bear in the trenches at 6-1, 290 pounds, but plays with enough of a mean streak to help contain backs, starting with Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall in week one. Being from Conyers, Ga. – less than 50 miles from Athens – you know Jarrett will be plenty fired up for that opener. Consider, the most productive game of his career (10 tackles, five solo, and a fumble recovery) was last year against Georgia Tech.
SOUTH CAROLINA’S No. 12
T.J. GURLEY, SOPHOMORE, FREE SAFETY
T.J. Gurley’s impact as South Carolina’s new free safety depends on how well he recovers from the season-ending knee injury he suffered Oct. 20 at Florida while covering a punt. Gurley was a true freshman last season and stepped in capably on Sept. 22 against Missouri in place of senior D.J. Swearinger, who was suspended one game for a helmet-to-helmet hit.
Gurley missed spring practices but is expected to be ready for the start of preseason practices in August. Even if he’s healthy, nobody expects him to be the next Swearinger from the get-go. Swearinger was a three-year starter, a ferocious hitter and the most vocal leader on the entire team. He was drafted in the second round by the Houston Texans.
Last summer, Gurley learned by tagging along with Swearinger in the weight and film rooms. The coaches liked that Gurley wasn’t tentative as a true freshman, and they played him in the dime package (six defensive backs) in the first three games before his start in Week 4.
If not for the uncertainty that Gurley’s knee injury presents, he would be higher on this list. Junior Kadetrix Marcus performed well enough in the spring that he enters August tied with Gurley on the depth chart. Gurley seemed on track last season to take over for Swearinger, but even if Marcus wins the job, neither player will be as experienced as Swearinger. Gurley could certainly end up being one of USC’s most important players in 2013, but questions about how he’ll return in August keep him at No. 12 for now.
The No. 11 players for Clemson and South Carolina.
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