The following is the second in a series of position previews.
The message from the South Carolina coaching staff this spring was clear: we have faith in Fred.
Overshadowed by Ko Simpson and Johnathan Joseph last season, it's time for senior cornerback Fred Bennett to step up and become the leader of South Carolina's new-look secondary now that USC's best pair of defensive backs in 2005 are currently toiling for NFL clubs.
Many college football experts think Bennett - who has started 21 games - is up to the task. The Sporting News rates Bennett as the top cornerback in the SEC and third-best in the nation entering the 2006 season.
Bennett has showed signs this summer of emerging as an excellent leader. He has led most of the summer workouts, head coach Steve Spurrier said.
"Fred has been one of our best leaders," Spurrier said. "Fred is probably going to be the captain on defense. I think he's a lot stronger than he was last year."
Bennett finished with three interceptions, 31 tackles and a team-high 10 pass-breakups in 2005. His seven interceptions over the past two seasons matched Simpson for most on the club during that span.
Bennett came up with one of the biggest plays of 2005 when he blocked a field goal attempt against Vanderbilt.
Bennett's experience and guidance will be sorely needed this season. Youth and inexperience will likely dominate the other three spots in the secondary.
"I'm ready for the challenge," Bennett said. "I want to be a coach and close friend to some of these young players because they need that. I'm going to try to lead this defense. There's nothing I can't handle."
Carlos Thomas - who flip-flopped between wide receiver and defensive back last season as a true freshman - has finally settled on a position.
He will likely start at cornerback opposite Bennett.
With his speed, Thomas showed the coverage skills last season of developing into a lock-down corner, something the Gamecocks desperately need after Joseph's departure for NFL glory.
"I feel a lot better on this side of the ball," Thomas said.
His interception in the end zone in the waning seconds of the first half against Georgia, thwarting a Bulldog scoring threat, was one of the best defensive plays by a USC player last season.
"Carlos is a cover guy," Spurrier said. "He's very quick and should be fine back there."
Now, after being asked to mostly blanket receivers last season during his short stints in the secondary, Thomas must expand his skills to become a more complete player.
Thomas, who returned 21 kickoffs last season, was credited with one tackle in 2005.
"Carlos has to continue to work on his tackling," USC defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said. "He is very talented. He just has to become consistent and learn what to do."
Thomas said he will be a quick learner.
With Bennett and Thomas set at cornerback, the picture is more foggy at safety. Chris Hampton (strong safety) and Ty Erving (free safety) were listed as part of the first-team defense at the conclusion of spring practice but they hardly have the full confidence of Spurrier, who frequently said on the Gamecock Club tour that both spots were up for grabs.
Hampton had 28 tackles in 2005 and was hampered by an ankle injury over the second half of the season, while Erving (eight tackles in 2005) was Simpson's backup last season.
But Erving may have gained his status by default, considering senior Brandon Isaac missed the entire spring while recovering from shoulder surgery. It probably won't take Isaac (34 tackles in 2005) long to make the leap to first-team once fall camp opens.
Isaac is the top returning tackler from last season.
But don't be surprised if a true freshman such as Darian Stewart (Huntsville, Ala.) - maybe the most underrated signee of the 2006 class - emerges and takes control of one of the safety positions.
Another true freshman who could take playing time away from a veteran player is lightning-quick cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (Mobile, Ala.), who could be a factor at wide receiver as well.
Spurrier has said unhesitantly that the incoming class of freshman defensive backs will be given every opportunity to show what they can do in fall camp and could possibly see extensive playing time this season.
One of those players could be Emanuel Cook, a top two-way player from Palm Beach County in Florida. While Cook was named Class 6A Player of the Year in the Sunshine State largely due to his exploits at running back, he was a hard-hitting safety and linebacker as well.
Cook wants to get on the field right away. The secondary appears to be his best opportunity at early playing time.
The top backups to Bennett and Thomas at cornerback in early August when camp opens will likely be redshirt freshman Jeremy Ware and sophomore Stoney Woodson, who started one game last season and was credited with nine tackles.
Damien Wright of Sumter, S.C., was redshirted last season before struggling to learn his responsibilities during spring spring. Nix talked about moving Wright to outside linebacker following the spring game.
PROBABLE STARTERS: Fred Bennett (CB), Carlos Thomas (CB), Brandon Isaac (FS), Chris Hampton (SS).
RESERVES: Jeremy Ware, Stoney Woodson, Ty Erving, Damien Wright, Darian Stewart, Aubrey McKay, Mychal Belcher, Nitron Stork, Emanuel Cook, Jerod June, Ranzino Valentine, Chris Hail, Nick Prochak, Captain Munnerlyn.