South Carolina Football Era Debate: Best Secondary

South Carolina football's Cam Smith could be a first-round pick in April's NFL Draft. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports
South Carolina football's Cam Smith could be a first-round pick in April's NFL Draft. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports /

In the history of South Carolina football, every good team was tough and had a defense that changed games for them. Some of these defenses forced turnovers, some stuffed the run, and others had secondaries that operated no-fly zones on the back end. But which era had the best players on the back end of their defenses?

First, let’s define the eras.

The Rex Enright Era: Anything before 1956

While Coach Enright did not coach all of these seasons, he was by far the longest-tenured coach during this time period, having coached twice as many games as any other coach who came before him. This is, by far, the longest of the eras but also has the fewest amount of games per season and the lowest overall amount of talent to choose from.

The ACC Era: 1956-1974

The Gamecocks joined the ACC in 1953 and left in 1971. In an effort to not split coaching tenures between two eras, 1953-1955 will be included in the Rex Enright Era, and 1971-1974 will be included in the ACC Era. 1956 was the school’s first season post-Rex Enright, and 1974 was Coach Paul Dietzel’s final year in Columbia. South Carolina did not win a ton during this era but did capture its only conference championship, claiming the ACC crown in 1969.

The Independent Era: 1975-1988

Jim Carlen, Richard Bell, and Joe Morrison led the Gamecocks through life as an Independent program. Schedules were difficult, but South Carolina managed to win at a decent clip through these years. The Gamecocks actually became Independent in 1971, but Paul Dietzel’s final years are included in the ACC Era. The program would not officially join a conference again until 1992, but after Joe Morrison passed away and Sparky Woods became coach in 1989, the move to a conference (ultimately, the SEC) was inevitable.

The Early SEC Era: 1989-2004

The years leading up to South Carolina football’s move into the best conference in college football and its first 13 years in the conference were up and down. Sparky Woods and Brad Scott struggled but had brief periods of success including the team’s first-ever bowl victory in a win over West Virginia in the Car Quest Bowl. The Lou Holtz tenure in Columbia started horribly (0-11), soared to heights Gamecock fans hadn’t seen in almost 20 years (17-7 from 2000-2001), then fizzled (three straight non-bowl seasons and a brawl that put a black eye on one of football’s best rivalries).

The Steve Spurrier Era: 2005-2015

The Steve Spurrier Era in Columbia was the brightest time in South Carolina football history. Sure, individual seasons like 1969, 1984, 1987, 2000, and 2001 happened during earlier time periods, but no time in Carolina history produced more sustained success for the garnet and black. Even with a poor ending in 2015 that saw Shawn Elliott finish the season after the Head Ball Coach resigned, Spurrier’s overall success at Carolina is unrivaled, so giving him his own era just makes sense.

The Modern Era: 2016-Present

In an era that is still building, the Gamecocks have been on a wild ride. Will Muschamp came in and fixed some of the structural issues in the program from the Spurrier era and seemed to be on the road to glory after a good second season. However, he showed he was incapable of getting things done on the field and was replaced by former Spurrier assistant Shane Beamer. Beamer and his staff have since dug the program out of a bad culture that was present at the end of the previous regime, and the South Carolina football program is on the rise once again.

Best Secondary Era of South Carolina Football

Each era of Gamecock football will have its positional group analyzed, and the top-three eras will be given a “starting lineup” that will be ranked against each other. Talent and positional fit will be the biggest factors, and depth will serve as a tie-breaker if the groups are just too close to point out any real distinction. For the secondary, cornerbacks, safeties, nickels, and spurs will be considered.

The Rex Enright Era: Bayard Pickett stands out in this era. One of three players in Carolina history to pick off four passes in one game, Pickett also played running back and was the team’s kicker. Pickett was the best cover man in the secondary for Coach Enright, and as one of the fastest players on the team, he racked up a fair amount of tackles.

The ACC Era: Dickie Harris and Bo Davies were excellent defensive backs who started as first year players for the ACC Championships Gamecocks of 1969. Davies is tied with Skai Moore for the school record for interceptions, and Harris was a small-in-stature but big-in-talent corner who made two All-American teams. Bobby Bryant was a baseball and football player at Carolina but was an All-American corner who went on to be one of the best pro Gamecocks ever.

The Independent Era: Bryant Gilliard had one of the best single seasons at free safety at Carolina when he pulled down nine interceptions in one year, including four in a big win against Florida State. Chris Major played with Gilliard and was an excellent tackling corner and was one of toughest players on the “Fire Ant” defense in 1984. The best of the bunch during this era, though, was Brad Edwards, who led the “Black Death” 1987 defense with 130 tackles and 8 interceptions. The All-American also had a nice NFL career including the best Super Bowl performance ever by a Gamecock.

The Early SEC Era: Tony Watkins, Sheldon Brown, Terry Cousin, Rashad Faison, Arturo Freeman, DeAndre Eiland, Andre Goodman, Kevin House, Dunta Robinson, Willie Offord, Rod Wilson, Lee Wiggins, Kevin Brooks. Somehow, all of these incredible defensive backs played in Columbia from 1991 to 2004. Sheldon Brown and Dunta Robinson were the best cover corners of the group, and Rashad Faison, Willie Offord, and Rod Wilson were hard-hitting safeties who all made it to the NFL. The DB group at Carolina was a never-ending run of awesome players from the early 1980s until the present, and the highlight of that run was probably this era.

The Steve Spurrier Era: The Steve Spurrier Era was loaded with safeties. Ko Simpson, Devonte Holloman, Emmanuel Cook, Antonio Allen, and DJ Swearinger all made at least one All-SEC team, and Simpson and Allen were All-Americans. Swearinger was also one of the best defensive leaders to ever wear the garnet and black. Stephon Gilmore, Chris Culliver, and Johnathan Joseph were NFL corners who all had good careers at South Carolina. Captain Munnerlyn and Fred Bennett were undersized corners who played above their weight and had NFL careers.

The Modern Era: Unfortunately, they were not all in their prime, but Jaycee Horn, Israel Mukuamu, Cam Smith, and Jaylan Foster were all on the same roster. Horn has an argument as the best ever Gamecock in man coverage, and Mukuamu and Smith will have long NFL careers. The only All-American of those four, though, was Jaylan Foster. Nick Emmanwori and DQ Smith were both All-Freshman All-SEC players in 2022 (Emmanwori was a Freshman All-American, as well), and their continued growth could help the Modern Era rise up this list.

The Verdict

South Carolina football has a history of tremendous defensive backs, making this verdict extremely difficult. The ACC Era and Independent Era were difficult to exclude, especially with the individual talents of Harris and Bryant in the ACC Era and Edward and Major in the Independent Era. The Modern Era is certainly trending upward with Nick Emmanwori at safety and several other young promising secondary players, but they have already done enough to make the top-3 along with the Steve Spurrier Era, and the Early SEC Era.

3rd Place: The Modern Era

Still trending upward, the modern era has a versatile group of defensive backs. Cam Smith and Jaycee Horn are two of the best cover corners in school history, but they also played lots of snaps in the nickel. Nick Emmanwori has already established himself as one of the best Gamecock tacklers ever, and he still has at least two more years on campus. Jaylan Foster was an All-American, and Israel Mukuamu is still playing in the NFL. A starting group of these five men in the secondary would be difficult to throw the ball against.

South Carolina Football
South Carolina football’s Cam Smith could be a first-round pick in April’s NFL Draft. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports /

2nd Place: The Steve Spurrier Era

Some of the biggest DBs to play at South Carolina, the Steve Spurrier Era was full of secondary players who were physically imposing and led some of the best pass defenses in the SEC. A starting group of Gilmore, Joseph, Allen (spur), Simpson, and Swearinger is probably the most talented era of Gamecock defensive backs. Swearinger also had one of the most famous sequences ever when he racked up a horse collar penalty, a massive hit that resulted in a helmet-to-helmet targeting penalty, a pick-six, and an unsportsmanlike penalty for throwing the ball into the stands…all in less than thirty seconds of game clock.

1st Place: The Early SEC Era

The Early SEC Era wins out as the best era of defensive backs because of the sheer number of excellent players who came through the program. Five Gamecock secondary players were drafted in a three-year span from 2002 and 2004, and that does not include safeties Rashad Faison and Tony Watkins who are among the program’s all-time leaders in tackles. Sheldon Brown and Dunta Robinson both spent a decade in the NFL at corner and were willing tacklers on the outside. A starting group of those four is elite, and the depth during this era means that the “backup” group of Terry Cousin, Andre Goodman, Willie Offord, and Rod Wilson were all still NFL players. Sheldon Brown had an incredible hit on Reggie Bush when the two faced off in the NFL.

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