Rodney Paulk defeats the stereotype of an FBS college football player in many respects.
A local product from Richland Northeast High School, Paulk excels in the classroom, having already graduated with his bachelor's degree in marine science, a unique major among elite athletes at this level.
But rather than take it easy, Paulk continues to carry a full course load as he pursues his master's degree in earth and environmental research and prepares for his final season with the Gamecocks.
The season-opener should be a special occasion for the incredibly intelligent Paulk and his family, because his younger brother Leonard Paulk plays for East Carolina.
How impressive have Paulk's academic accomplishments been? Because knee injuries robbed him of nearly two full seasons, he was granted a rare sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA before the conclusion of the 2010 season.
But the former Shrine Bowler is a darn good football player. too. With 143 career tackles in 44 games, he has a chance to reach the 200-tackle plateau and to set a school record for most games played before he's finally done.
"Physically, I feel real good," Paulk said Wednesday following USC's final scrimmage of preseason camp. "I'm blessed because not many players get the opportunity to come back for their sixth year. Fortunately, this university, the coaches and the fans have all been good to me. It's all about going out here and making the best of my sixth year and helping this team win a SEC championship."
With the start of the season nine days away, Paulk and redshirt junior Shaq Wilson are rotating at middle linebacker in an effort by Ellis Johnson to secure much-needed experience and leadership. The position requires making the calls and checks for the front seven.
Paulk, though, knows the mike and will positions like the back of his hand, so he's capable of lining up at either spot and playing error-free football. He expects to play mainly at mike in the Sept. 3 opener.
Johnson has frequently referred to Wilson as "the quarterback" of the USC defense, but Paulk sees the same role for himself.
"Whoever is the mike (at the time will call the play," Paulk said. "If we're both out there, we'll both call the play. Yes, Shaq is a vocal leader, but I'm a vocal leader as well. It depends on who has the role at the time. As long as somebody is out there on the field who knows what they are doing, we'll make plays. Shaq is a great linebacker. When he's out there, he can make plays and make the checks. He makes things happen."
Because of the timing of their various injuries, Paulk and Wilson have rarely been healthy at the same time. The 2011 season marks a new chapter for the experienced duo that has combined for 251 tackles.
Playing with Wilson has Paulk, who says he is 95 percent healthy, giddy about the linebacker position.
"The sky is the limit as far as the goals we can achieve," Paulk said. "The both of us have so much experience. And everybody around us, too. Shaq and I are the quarterbacks of the defense, but we have so many great players around us from the defensive line to the secondary. We feel very confident going into this season because we know what we're doing out there. Now it's actually about execution and putting all the plays together."
The decision by Johnson to pair Paulk and Wilson at middle linebacker forced Reginald Bowens to move to outside (weakside) linebacker, where he'll join Quin Smith and Damario Jeffery. That latter is expected to fill in at spur for the season opener while DeVonte Holloman serves a one-game suspension.
"Reggie Bowens is probably the best linebacker we have," Paulk said. "Shaq is fundamentally the nest linebacker. Even guys like Qua Gilchrist (third-string MLB) and Cedrick Cooper are coming along and learning the defense a lot better. We have a tremendous group of guys right now. We just need to get everybody up to the same speed and make sure they all know what they're doing. But it's one thing to know it and another thing to go out there and execute it."
With one season left, Paulk hopes to capture the magic of his sophomore season in 2007, when he ranked fourth on the Gamecocks with 64 tackles, 4.5 for loss. But a knee injury in August of 2008 set the tone for the following two seasons. He saw limited playing time in the first four games of 2008 before shutting it down.
He returned in 2009 and was slated to be the starting middle linebacker, but suffered a torn right ACL in the first half of the season-opener at NC State, ending his season prematurely. Last year, he served primarily as a backup to Josh Dickerson and appeared in all 14 games, finishing with 32 tackles despite wearing a brace that restricted his movement.
When Paulk signed with USC in February of 2006, Steve Spurrier was preparing for his second season as the Gamecocks' coach. As a result, he has seen the USC program develop over the last five-plus years and turn into a Top-15 program. The Gamecocks are No. 12 in the preseason Associated Press poll released last week, the highest preseason ranking in school history.
"The expectations are high," Paulk said. "When I got here as a freshman, people didn't know who South Carolina was for the most part. But now we have a little reputation and we're somewhat on the map right now. Now we need to go out and prove to the world and the fans that we are capable of great things."
Obviously, since his career spans almost the entire length of Spurrier's tenure, Paulk is often asked for his opinion on the biggest difference between now and five years ago when he first joined the program.
"The biggest difference is the camaraderie among the players," Paulk said. "When I first came here there were a lot of individuals and troublemakers. Many of the players were doing their own thing. Now, players are getting along and it's more of a team rather than an individual thing. Everybody is accountable. Someone once told me that the best ability is dependability. It's a group effort. No one can do it alone."
The son of a strict Army sergeant, Paulk moved to Columbia in the ninth grade (2003) and has remained ever since. He spent part of his childhood living in Hawaii.
In doing so, he grew to appreciate the value of an education.
"I've been to a lot of places and seen a lot of faces," Paulk said. "I've met a lot of people with different educational backgrounds and backgrounds in general. I'm a lot more open to society's views on things and culture in general. Living in Hawaii, that was a whole different culture. Before I came here, I was exposed to a lot of things."
With his bachelor's degree in hand and a master's degree soon to follow, Paulk is living proof of a saying his father told him a long time ago - no grades, no glory.