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Oct. 14, 2009

By Adrienne Cunningham
Media Relations Student Assistant

Being a part of one of the top defenses in the SEC is no simple task. One must possess thorough knowledge of the game and act as a bursting force on the gridiron. Defensive tackle Nathan Pepper has conquered these tasks and more for South Carolina. His perseverance and humble attitude has made him a familiar name with Carolina football. Now in his fifth year, Pepper exemplifies what it means to be a team leader and continues to be an asset to South Carolina’s explosive defense.

A Greenville, S.C. native, Pepper always had his mind made up to play at South Carolina. Unlike many of his teammates who may have considered playing for other schools, Pepper had had his heart set on being a Gamecock.

One of three fifth-year scholarship players on the roster, Pepper is no stranger to hard work. He has made more starts than any other player on the team, and if the Gamecocks head to the post season this year, he will be the first Gamecock to ever play in four bowl games. His meek persona has placed this accolade in the back of Pepper’s mind as he focuses on getting a tough SEC slate. But with the Gamecocks off to a promising start, Pepper hopes to achieve this distinctive honor.

As a defensive tackle, Pepper is a force to be reckoned with. He is known for making big plays and carrying out his assignments come game time. He believes in a strong defense and has faith in South Carolina’s defensive line to step up to the plate. Thus far into the season, Pepper feels that everything is playing out well for the defense as a whole.

The road to becoming one of South Carolina’s top defensive players has been no piece of cake for Pepper. Just this season, he suffered a minor ankle injury that put him out for a couple of games early in the season. Pepper, however, put his team first and devoted time and commitment in the athletic training room on the road to recovery. The most important thing for him to do was to get better and be a part of the team.

He returned to the field and helped place the Gamecocks in a national spotlight when South Carolina defeated fourth ranked Ole Miss in the fourth game of the season.

“It was an important win because it was South Carolina’s first win over a top five opponent at home,” said Pepper. “That was just something good to be able to do for our fans. It was real exciting and important for us.”

This speaks volumes about the senior who epitomizes the phrase, “There’s no I in Team.”

Pepper has overcome a number of hits, but took his hardest fall in his third season at South Carolina. In 2007, Pepper intercepted a pass and returned it 19 yards for a touchdown in the win over South Carolina State. It was his second career interception. However, triumph quickly turned into disaster when Pepper suffered a left knee injury on the play and was forced to undergo season-ending surgery. Pepper remained on the sidelines for the remainder of the season, but remained productive as he took notes.

Pepper looked at his injury as a minor setback and decided to turn his misfortune into an opportunity. Instead of taking the rest of the season off, Pepper watched from the sidelines what he could not see on the field. He took mental notes and visually studied details of his position so when he was ready to return, he knew what he had to do.

“I think it was a blessing in disguise,” says Pepper, “I got a chance to sit back and watch more of the game, and learn more things that I needed to know. I feel like that injury helped me mature more as a player and as a person.”

Pepper’s maturity speaks volumes on the field and in the locker room. He is an asset to the defense as he continually works with assistant head coach Ellis Johnson and defensive line coach Brad Lawing. Since Coach Lawing arrived, the last four years have been more technical for the defense. Pepper states,

“Coach Lawing has definitely taught me a lot since he’s been here,” said Pepper. “He’s expected us to be our best and that’s definitely showing up in the games when we play.”

With four years and a major injury under his belt, Pepper has become a team leader and a go-to guy for his younger teammates. Through his experiences, he is able to help younger players who need guidance or someone they can simply relate to. He makes his presence known to the younger players and is proactive in reaching out to them when he sees the opportunity.

Pepper feels that it is important for the younger players to have people who have been through circumstances that can relate to them.

Pepper says, “It’s my fifth season being here and I’ve been through things that a lot of younger players will probably never have to go through. There’s lot of things that I know that they may not know that I can help them with. If I see them going through something that I’ve been through, I’ll let it be known and talk to them about it.”

This attitude has gained Pepper a great deal of respect from his teammates and coaches. But it is Pepper’s strong faith that plays a major role in his decisions on the field and in life.

When looking back on his college football career he has a vivid memory.

“I have had big things happen to me, and have had things go from great to terrible at the same time,” said Pepper.

He has been through a lot as a player and though it may sound crazy to some, he is happy to have gone through his misfortunes and considers them blessings.

He says, “I’ve been blessed by God. He’s really been looking out for me despite my injuries. I’ve been able to make it back from all of those injuries and still come out and contribute to our team.”

With the “New Carolina” theme parading throughout Williams-Brice Stadium, Pepper has quickly caught onto the vibe. He notices a different feel to the team as they have a better understanding of taking care of the ball and making plays when they can.

“I just feel like our team is in a different position. It doesn’t feel the same, as a team, as that year we started out fast. It just feels like we’ve got a better hold of what’s going on.”

In his time at Carolina, Pepper has valued the opportunity to play for a big name coach like Steve Spurrier and his quality coaching staff. It has been a great experience for him and he has no complaints. Come December, Pepper will graduate from South Carolina with a degree in African-American studies. He will be the first among his family members to stick with college and graduate. As far as his future plans, Pepper plans to play it by ear.

In his final season, Pepper has a lot to take away from his Carolina Football experience. He will remember the highs of upsetting top ranked opponents, and the lows of battling injuries. But through it all, he says that he will miss his teammates and playing with the guys. Even more, he will miss running out of that smoke-filled tunnel while hearing the crowd cheer and with 2001 blaring through the sound system and echoing throughout the stadium.