The South Carolina defense has been forced to embody a “next man up” mentality early this season, with many defensive starters set to miss extended time after suffering injuries.
This has allowed players to take advantage of increased playing time, including freshman defensive back Nick Emmanwori, who has established himself as a budding star in the Gamecocks' secondary.
A native of Irmo, South Carolina, Emmanwori was a decorated middle linebacker at Irmo High School. After earning first-team All-State 4A honors as a junior, Emmanwori registered 232 tackles, four sacks and eight forced fumbles his senior year, and helped lead the Yellow Jackets to the state semifinals in his final season.
Despite being listed as the sixth-best high school player in the state in the class of 2022 according to Rivals, he received official offers from only four schools — Richmond, Georgia Southern, Charlotte and South Carolina.
Thrust into a starting role after fifth-year defensive back R.J. Roderick was sidelined for multiple games with an early-season injury, Emmanwori said he is confident he has the skills to succeed early on.
“I feel confident in my ability to play early (in the season) — real physical, understanding the scheme of the defense,” Emmanwori said. “I just got a little bit more on my reads, a little better and stuff, but I feel confident.”
That confidence has shown in Emmanwori’s on-field performance. Through four games, he has accumulated a team-high 31 total tackles, including an 11-tackle game against then No. 16 Arkansas and a 14-tackle effort against No. 1 Georgia, which were his first two collegiate starts.
Defensive coordinator Clayton White said Emmanwori’s early success is a testament to his mental strength, which differentiates him from past players.
“We’ve seen athletes before that can run and jump just as fast as Nick, but it’s the mental makeup that he brings from his background with his high school, Irmo High School with Coach (Aaron) Brand, and whoever taught him before that, his family background and just his overall story,” White said. “His mental makeup is really the part that’s really making him a lot of success right now.”
Senior defensive lineman Zacch Pickens said Emmanwori’s willingness to ask questions and listen has served as a valuable tool in his preparations for each game.
“I say (former South Carolina defensive backs) Jaylin Dickerson and Jaylan Foster has got Nick really ready. He always goes to those two with answers," Pickens said. “Foster is more hands-on. When we’re out there, Foster’s like, ‘alright, be ready for this and that,’ and he just listens, and that’s one thing that Nick does well — he listens, and then he goes out and performs.”
Pickens said Emmanwori has already gained enough experience and learned so much that “he’s basically going to be like a veteran already.”
Though Emmanwori’s transition to the college game has appeared seamless on paper, he said he has already noticed some major differences from what he experienced in high school.
“Coming up from high school, I was probably the biggest dude out on the field, but you know, going to college, you see a lot of big guys, so you gotta learn how to adjust and move and know how to attack people different,” Emmanwori said.
Head coach Shane Beamer said he was impressed by Emmanwori’s composure and is excited to see him improve as the season continues.
“As he’s shown the last two weeks, the moment’s not too big for him,” Beamer said. “Nick prepares the right way and has fun playing and competing, and (I’m) certainly really proud of him and the start he’s had so far."