With preseason football practice starting on Aug. 3, GamecockCentral.com presents a new series that takes a look at three players per day who have either played in at least one game or appear on the post-spring two-deep depth chart.
Before South Carolina: Rodney Paulk was rated by Rivals.com as a three-star prospect out of Richland Northeast High School. He was also offered by East Carolina, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia Tech.
The measurables: 6-foot-0, 229 pounds
2006: Making an impact right away, Paulk earned freshman All-SEC honors after starting 10 of 13 games and logging 36 tackles. Paulk had 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack and recovered a fumble, leading all freshmen that year in starts and becoming a player who was regarded as having unlimited potential.
2007: Paulk's rise continued as he finished fourth on the team with 64 tackles, including 41 solo, as he started all 12 games. He had another 4.5 tackles for loss with one sack and one hurry, earning other kudos for his everyday work ethic and for being the most highly regarded player on the defense in terms of making impact plays.
2008: Injured his knee in preseason camp and tried to play through it, as he was told he would need surgery but wouldn't injure himself further if he played on it. The pain was too much and Paulk's mobility was too limited, though, so he shut himself down after four games and five tackles, applied for a medical redshirt and received it.
2009: Paulk returned to the field and earned a start during the season-opener, only to stay down after his sixth and final tackle against NC State. He had again torn a knee ligament, was again relegated to the shelf but again won a medical redshirt.
2010: Still hobbled by the knee injuries, Paulk played in all 14 games and was relied on to take the place of leading tackler Shaq Wilson, who missed all but one game with a hamstring injury. Paulk had decent numbers, with 32 tackles including four for loss and 2.5 sacks, but his explosiveness and nose for the football weren't as apparent. Paulk still gave maximum effort but the two years away from the game seemed to have taken a toll on him, especially as he was being asked to replace a player who had 85 tackles the year before.
Paulk is one of the most valuable members of the team in terms of veteran leadership and poise, being a rare sixth-year senior in football. Everyone's hoping that the level of play rises to match his experience this year. Paulk has been very solid, but the two knee injuries thus far have transformed a career destined for school records and the NFL into a good, but not great, chapter. Paulk is rid of the brace that he had to wear in 2010, so perhaps that will help, and had his knee cleaned up during the spring so he could be in top shape. Listed as the starter at weakside linebacker, Paulk should be playing beside Wilson this year and behind what should be an outstanding defensive front. If he can just get that one play in the first game, where he charges in for a huge tackle or ball recovery, it will go much further to his psyche and ability for the season than one stop would suggest.
Before South Carolina: Travian Robertson was rated by Rivals.com as a four-star prospect out of Scotland County (N.C.) High School. Considered a defensive end, he was also offered by Clemson, North Carolina NC State and Virginia Tech.
The measurables: 6-foot-4, 298 pounds
2007: Too talented to redshirt, Robertson played in all 12 games as a backup and logged seven tackles. He also had a pass break-up and a quarterback hurry. Robertson was the only freshman in the starting lineup during the season-opener.
2008: Robertson played in all 13 games and had 17 tackles, including a career-high six against Clemson He also recovered a fumble in that game.
2009: Robertson earned the start and exploded from the gate, dominating USC's first four games as he became a one-man show in the middle of the defensive line. Robertson had eight tackles and swarmed the ball-carrier even if the play ran away from him, and was disrupting Ole Miss' offensive front as the high-ranking Rebels came to Columbia. The Gamecocks won but lost Robertson to a knee injury - it ended Robertson's season but because it was in the fourth game, he was eligible for a medical redshirt.
2010: Showing no signs of the knee injury, Robertson helped anchor a defensive line that was one of the best in the SEC. He had 42 tackles, accumulating 10 for loss as the Gamecocks featured him, Ladi Ajiboye, Cliff Matthews and Devin Taylor as supreme pass-rushers and run-stoppers. He again recovered a fumble against Clemson and had four tackles (with a sack) as well, as the defensive line helped squash the Tigers' offense.
A respected leader as well as a player, Robertson returns for his fifth year as the mainstay of a line that should be one of the conference's best. Already accumulating preseason awards, Robertson will be the most experienced defensive tackle the Gamecocks have, and can show that if the opponent tries to run away from ends Taylor, Melvin Ingram and/or Jadeveon Clowney, the best route won't be through the middle. Massive in the middle of the line, Robertson's speed is the best it's ever been and he's living the dream, having already graduated and being able to play one final season, not many outside worries, on a team expected to be USC's best. Robertson has had some leg issues (ankles and hamstrings) during his career outside the knee injury, but if he remains healthy, he's an All-SEC contender.
Before South Carolina: Ace Sanders was rated by Rivals.com as a four-star prospect out of Manatee (Fla.) High School. He was also offered by Iowa State, Miami, Purdue, Rutgers, South Florida and West Virginia.
The measurables: 5-foot-7, 173 pounds
2010: Sanders was one of three freshmen deemed ready to play right away, and showed why when he blazed 53 yards on a reverse the first time he touched the ball against Southern Miss. Sanders stuck in the role, catching 25 balls for 316 yards and two touchdowns, and even threw a touchdown to Stephen Garcia during the Chick-fil-A Bowl. He also became the Gamecocks' primary punt returner, logging nine kicks for 16 yards.
Sanders has the hands and the speed to be an elite wide receiver, but will have his work cut out for him this season. He came out of the spring with the Most Improved Wide Receiver Award, but was still regarded as the backup slot receiver to Jason Barnes. With Alshon Jeffery, D.L. Moore and Barnes, the Gamecocks can throw three tall, lanky receivers at the opponent while with Sanders, it takes away the height advantage and also some blocking ability. But Sanders can make an impact. His best chance to play this year is to prove himself capable of doing everything the others can, most notably blocking and by not telegraphing himself as a reverse-only or trick-play receiver. He has the talent, but is behind Barnes, and with other small and shifty receivers like Damiere Byrd and Bruce Ellington coming in, Sanders will have to distance himself from the pack.