Kicking it with South Carolina's Eric Norwood

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

South Carolina senior outside linebacker Eric Norwood is one of the best stories in the SEC.

He’s also one of the best football players.

Norwood, who admittedly didn’t take his high school classwork seriously, was denied admission three times into South Carolina before finally getting in on appeal. He’s now on track to graduate in less than four years in December with a degree in criminology and has been on the Dean’s List multiple times.

On the football field, he’s been equally stellar. One of the most feared pass-rushers in the league, Norwood had two more sacks in South Carolina’s 7-3 season-opening win over North Carolina State to raise his career total to 24.

He’s just two off the school record of 26, held by Andrew Provence, and could move into the top 5 on the SEC’s all-time list with a big senior season. Former Florida defensive end Alex Brown is currently fifth on that list with 33 career sacks.

The 6-foot-1, 252-pound Norwood is the SEC’s career active leader in both sacks and tackles for loss and is the centerpiece of a South Carolina defense that got off to a rousing start in the opener. He took some time this week to chat with me about what lies ahead for him and this team entering Saturday’s big game at Georgia:

One of your coaches in the preseason paid you the ultimate compliment when he said you play like every play is your last, whether it's in practice or a game. Where’s that come from?

Eric Norwood: I’m ready every day. It’s game time for me whenever I get out on the field, wherever I’m at, whether we’re at home, at Florida or Tennessee. I’m able to zone out and play fast no matter who I’m going against.

Are you better at outside linebacker or defensive end?

EN: Anywhere you line me up. I probably like linebacker better.

What happened to turn you around academically once you got to South Carolina?

EN: I just started applying myself. I never did in high school. It almost cost me. Most of the schools that were recruiting me started dropping off, but the coaches at South Carolina went to bat for me.

You’re from Acworth, Ga., and went to North Cobb High. How much did Georgia recruit you?

EN: They recruited me. Coach [Mike] Bobo came down and watched a game or two. My grades were so bad that they didn’t really follow up.

Is there any reason to believe the Georgia game won’t be another defensive struggle?

EN: Since I’ve been here, they’ve scored three touchdowns and we’ve scored two. That’s how it’s been, and I don’t think it’s going to be any different this year. I mean, I hope it is with our offense. But in all reality, that’s just how this game is. I think it’s going to come down to who executes their defense the best and who makes the most plays on defense.

How special is this game for you, given your Georgia roots?

EN: It’s definitely for bragging rights when I go home. But since I’ve been in Columbia, I’ve really gained an appreciation for this rivalry. I had to watch Georgia when I moved there, but I grew up on Big 12 football because I grew up in Dallas. I moved to Georgia when I was 14, and it was all SEC. Then you come to Columbia, and you really learn about what this game is all about. It’s the biggest rivalry on our schedule next to Clemson.

What kind of role have you taken on with all the freshmen on this team?

EN: It’s important to show them the ropes, what it takes in this league. Devin [Taylor], DeVonte [Holloman], Stephon [Gilmore] and those guys are young and inexperienced, but they’ve got winning mentalities. When they step out on the field, they don’t think and play like freshmen. They’re just like everybody else, and that’s what I like about them.

You’ve gone against the South Carolina offense all preseason. Do you think they will play better on that side of the ball this week?

EN: I hope so. They’ve been practicing hard. They can’t go anywhere but up.

You initially declared for the NFL draft following last season, but changed your mind. What brought you back?

EN: Looking at all the guys who were already out there at my position and had established themselves as true linebackers, I just had to swallow my pride and know that it wasn’t my time. I sort of felt that I had proven everything that I wanted to here. But then I realized there were some things I hadn’t done, like helping this team move up to where we want to be in the SEC.

South Carolina has only won more than eight games in a season twice in school history. How do you respond to those people who say the Gamecocks will never be able to get over that hump and win big in the SEC?

EN: Truthfully, I don’t listen to it. I know people say it. But to me, there’s no such thing as a team that can’t get over the hump, and I don’t think that’s the case with us. We’ve just got to go out and win. It’s hard to win in this league, but you’ve got to go out and compete. And if you’re competing in this league, you’re competing at the highest level of college football that there is.