Up Close With All-America Candidate Eric Norwood
March 10, 2009
by Brian Powell, Media Relations Student Assistant
The day was January 1, 2009. The place was Tampa, Florida. The South Carolina Gamecocks had just suffered a disappointing loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Outback Bowl to end a season that saw the Gamecocks lose their last three games. After the game, the South Carolina faithful were dealt another blow. Two of their most promising underclassmen announced that they would forego their senior seasons and enter the NFL Draft. Captain Munnerlyn and Eric Norwood, both former first-team All-SEC selections, would be leaving Columbia to follow their dreams of playing football at the highest level. While Munnerlyn stuck to his plan, the story would play out a little differently for Norwood.
The day is now Monday, January 5, 2009. ESPN reports: "I've been looking at some of the guys from last year who increased their draft stock by returning," said Norwood. "So I changed my mind. I like the security that returning to school will provide."
This was good news for the Gamecocks. South Carolina will bring back its anchor to go along with five other returning defensive starters. This, coupled with another consensus top-12 recruiting class, brings back that familiar sense of optimism stemming from Columbia in the months leading up to college football season.
Important to any program attempting to establish perennial success is the ability to retain its successful rising seniors. "It means a lot as far as building tradition at this school," said Norwood. "You look at some of the other schools across the nation such as Southern California, Oklahoma, Texas, and other major football schools and a lot of their guys that have the chance to go, as I did, tend to opt to come back for their senior year. It's the type of tradition they have because of the way they win. That's the type of tradition that I and my fellow seniors want to try to instill in the younger group here. We think we have a pretty good chance of being good next year."
The rising senior lists many reasons for his coming back to play for his final campaign. One of these reasons may come as a surprise. "I look at it like I have about 15 younger cousins from the age range of five to 15 and no one on either side of my family has graduated from college," said Norwood. "It'll be nice for them to see me playing in the NFL, but it'll be better for them to see me with a degree knowing that if I can do it, they can do it. The area I grew up in before I moved to Georgia, living in California and Texas, was a place where there weren't too many people with degrees. I just want to prove to them that they can get it done."
Norwood maintains a GPA over 3.0 and was awarded the Harold White GPA award for the defense following the 2008 spring practices. He is on track to graduate in December with a degree in criminal justice.
"Since I got in, I've done everything I can to utilize my resources, as far as academics go," said Norwood. "(Director of Academic Services) Raymond Harrison and his academic staff have instilled an incredible discipline in us to work hard academically."
Not heavily recruited out of high school, Norwood found out about the University of South Carolina in a very auspicious way. A young, promising defensive coordinator from Southern Mississippi began to recruit the Georgia native who was not receiving much attention from many big schools. The connection was quick and electric. Norwood became interested in Tyrone Nix and the style of defense Nix was utilizing. Nix, a former standout linebacker himself, seemed to be a good fit for Norwood.
"I liked his style of defense," said Norwood. "I loved his aggressive style. I talked to him and that's one of the main reasons I came to South Carolina. Coach Spurrier's a great guy to play for, but he (Coach Nix) was the reason I decided to come."
Though Nix has since moved on to the University of Mississippi, the two continue to keep in contact and maintain an excellent relationship.
Norwood wasted little time in making an impact in Columbia. He began his collegiate career at defensive end, tabbing 7.0 sacks as a freshman, tied for most on the team, and recording 9.0 tackles for loss, good for the third highest mark on the team.
Perhaps his biggest game of the year came against Kentucky, a game in which he stopped the Wildcats a season-high six times. He earned numerous postseason accolades, including first-team Freshman All-America and first team Freshman All-SEC by the Sporting News.
His sophomore year continued much the same way his freshman year ended. Norwood continued to dominate offenses, finishing with a school-record 19.5 tackles for loss. His 1.62 tackles for loss per game ranked third in the SEC and seventh in the nation. He tied for first in the SEC with three fumble recoveries. Again, post-season honors came to Norwood. He was named first-team All-SEC by the league's coaches and second-team All-SEC by the Associated Press.
Norwood was able to break onto the national stage in a game against Kentucky in 2007. The game pitted No. 11 South Carolina against the No. 8 Wildcats, who were undefeated at the time, on a primetime Thursday night game on ESPN. Norwood put on a show for the Gamecock fans and the national audience. He tied an NCAA record by returning two fumbles for touchdowns, scoring from two and 53 yards. He also had five unassisted tackles including a tackle for loss. He notched two pass deflections and a quarterback hurry in the Gamecocks' win. His effort against Kentucky earned him FWAA/Bronko Nagurski and the Master Coaches National Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Norwood also was talked about on SportsCenter following the Kentucky win, aside from his play on the field, for his post-game interview with ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews. Mid-interview, following University of South Carolina tradition, he turned, faced the band, and raised his hand for a toast during the Carolina alma mater. Tradition was more important than concern over requiring Andrews and a cameraman to rearrange their positions.
"Definitely Kentucky my sophomore year was cool, but I thought I kind of had an average game. I missed two sacks. I would rather have sacks than touchdowns honestly."
The 2008 season brought changes to the South Carolina defense and Norwood in particular when Ellis Johnson replaced Nix as defensive coordinator, Norwood moved from defensive end, his home for the previous two seasons, to outside linebacker. The move was designed to assist Norwood in getting into the backfield quicker and continue to cause havoc for opposing offenses.
"It was hard at first, but I knew I could get it done, said Norwood. "I learned from guys like Jasper Brinkley, Dustin Lindsey, Marvin Sapp and Gerrod Sinclair. It helped a lot just watching those guys."
The watching and the position change paid off for the Gamecocks. Norwood continued his tear through the South Carolina record book. His 9.0 sacks in a single season were tied for the second highest in school history. He notched another 14.5 tackles for loss, making him the school leader in tackles for loss in a career with 43.0. The year's success helped make him third among active FBS career leaders in tackles for loss and fourth in sacks (23.0).
"It's like my touchdown," said Norwood when describing the excitement of making a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. "It's like a touchdown every time I get a sack or hit somebody for a loss. It's a crazy feeling."
The 2009 season brings high hopes for Norwood and the Gamecocks. Even though the 2008 season ended on a low note, Norwood feels that people should not be down on the Gamecocks.
"There definitely should be a lot of optimism for next year. I was optimistic about the program when I was making my decision about coming back to school. Things have changed already. We have a new strength coach. Coach [Mark] Smith was great, but this new guy, Coach [Craig] Fitzgerald, has everybody working. Everybody is just coming to work. I feel really good about this program. When I got here we still had guys that would say, `I don't care about these workouts. They're voluntary.' But now we have guys that are ready to work, ready to go out. We're definitely on the rise. It starts in the offseason, and we're at a great point now."
Aside from the football, Norwood has found a home in Columbia. "I love the University," said Norwood. "I love Columbia. Everyone has treated me great ever since I stepped foot on the campus."
As a senior, Norwood understands his role as one of the team's leaders. "My role is just to lead," said Norwood. "That's what I try to do. I'm a vocal guy. I'm live. I'm intense. I'm trying to get the crowd and the team hyped."
As part of his role as a team leader, he knows that he must continue to perform well on the field. He lists his season's goals as being able to eclipse 100 tackles, record 10 sacks and log another 20 or more for a loss.
While Norwood acknowledges the importance of his personal goals, one of his most important goals is helping lay the foundation of traditional success at South Carolina."We're heading in the right direction. I'm optimistic and I know all of my teammates are."