Paulk brothers square off in SC-ECU matchup
The brothers Paulk are only focused on helping South Carolina and East Carolina start their respective seasons off with a win.
But something's got to give.
The former high school teammates will face each other for the first time Saturday night when the 12th-ranked Gamecocks meet the Pirates at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
Rodney Paulk is a South Carolina linebacker; younger brother Leonard is a defensive back for East Carolina.
Both will have plenty of support Saturday at the Carolina Panthers stadium. What there won't be is trash talk or family bets, Rodney said. That's not the Paulk way.
"We're excited to play the game," said the Gameoccks sixth-year linebacker. "But it is what it is. We're ballplayers so we're going to go into this game like any other game. It just so happens we're playing each other."
The two were standouts at Richland Northeast High in Columbia, part of a Cavaliers team that won a region title and reached the state championship finals in 2005. Rodney was the defensive star of that club with 172 tackles and 12 sacks that season. Leonard was a rising defensive back, part of a secondary that included Notre Dame defensive back Gary Gray.
"The Paulks are always very close and one of those families that always does things together," said Richland Northeast coach Jay Frye, who coached both with the Cavaliers.
Rodney, a 6-foot, 229-pounder who turns 23 on Sept. 11, locked onto hometown South Carolina because he wanted to be a part of coach Steve Spurrier's rebuilding project. Rodney never figured he'd be here this long to see it pay off.
He was picked by league coaches for the all-Southeastern Conference freshman team in 2006 and built on that to start all 12 games for South Carolina a year later. That's when Rodney's rise was halted by injuries
He hurt his left knee in August 2008 and played just four games before remaining on the sidelines for good. Rodney rehabbed the injury all offseason and reclaimed a starting spot the following fall, but then hurt his right knee in the 2009 opener to miss the rest of that season, too.
Rodney returned for a healthy 2010 season, although he did not appear as agile as he had before the injuries. He's listed as the backup at middle linebacker behind Shaq Wilson for the East Carolina game.
Ellis Johnson, the South Carolina assistant in charge of defense, says Rodney has a knowledge of football that will help the Gamecocks this season
Rodney was granted medical waiver for both years, setting up the showdown with his brother.
Leonard, 5-11 and 192 pounds, was not as highly regarded coming out of high school as his older brother, although he was a two-year team captain and starter for Richland Northeast. He redshirted in 2008 and has played in 26 games the past two years. Leonard is one of two possibilities the Pirates list on the boundary cornerback spot.
He, too, shares his brother's locked-in attitude about the opener and is not distracted by facing Rodney's team this week.
"He's focused on his team. I'm focused on my team," said Leonard, 20. "We don't get into all that hype and stuff. We just play the game."
Frye, the Richland Northeast coach, chuckles when told about the Paulks' putting the game front and center.
Rodney was a player who blended athletic ability, intelligence and character at a young age, Frye remembered.
"He's not going to quit on anything," Frye said. "He wanted to finish what he started."
Both players regularly return to Cavaliers games. They get to see friends and guide younger players, but also watch the last of the football Paulks, Darius, a senior tailback who has rushed for 271 yards in RNE's 2-0 start.
The brothers haven't spoken much this week. The conversations have been limited to how each other is doing and not the game.
"He's going to go out there and do the best he can to show out and I'm going to do the best I can to show out," Rodney said.
The Gamecocks, the defending SEC Eastern Division champions, enter as nearly three-touchdown favorites. East Carolina's defense was dead last in the Bowl Subdivision, allowing nearly 480 yards a game last season.
No matter the outcome, the Paulk brothers will shake hands before getting back to their seasons. Each will do what they can, Frye knows, to come out on top.
"Both of them will want to whip the other one because they're both extremely competitive," he said.