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November 3, 2010

Ajiboye Keeping Team Loose

He doesn't treat everything with a touch of humor, because he understands there is a time for work and a time for play.

But Ladi Ajiboye also knows that a little trace of funny goes a long way. He knows he's being held in high standard for basically playing a game, and just knowing that is enough to put a smile across his broad face.

This is the same guy who chose the 3D movie on the road trip to Auburn, kept his glasses and wore them during pre-game warm-ups the next day. The same guy who cheerfully announced his nickname during a press conference last year, saying he used to be called "BBL," for "Bad Body Ladi."

The same guy who has been a boulder in the middle of the defensive line since he reported, and stands a good chance of playing in the NFL next year.

"Ladi's a very powerful player. He has tremendous explosion," line coach Brad Lawing recently said. "He finds himself in the right place and where he's supposed to be. That's just an older guy with experience. Lot of guys, it takes a while to learn that."

In his last season, Ajiboye is striving to duplicate his previous performances. A second-team freshman All-American year in 2007 was slightly derailed the next year, after a broken hand affected his sophomore season. An arrest and subsequent three-game suspension left him hungry in 2009, and he started the final 10 games and collected 45 tackles.

Through the Gamecocks' first eight contests, Ajiboye had 26 tackles, including three for loss with one sack. He's playing on a line stacked with future NFL talent, and knows it.

Although he'll crack on them with the same regularity that he does an enemy running back.

"Who's the best?," he recently repeated. "I'm going to say me. I got it all!"

The first half of the season had USC doing a fine job of stopping the run, but it came with an asterisk -- the Gamecocks are hardly challenged up front because their pass defense has been so atrocious. The last loss before the midpoint, a 31-28 meltdown at Kentucky, had the Wildcats throwing time and again over Ajiboye's head.

That was one film study where Ajiboye kept the jokes to himself. As a senior leader, it wasn't the time.

"We're trained not to be surprised in the SEC, because anything can happen," Ajiboye said. "It happened. It's all done now, so it's in the past. Got to keep moving forward."

The reason it was so mind-boggling was that USC had dominated Alabama the previous week. The Gamecocks dethroned the No. 1 team in the country and made it look relatively easy.

But the Crimson Tide are a running team, while Kentucky is not. USC's pass defense has been shaky all year and it got much, much worse against the Wildcats. It was the same against Tennessee.

Ajiboye sat and watched those spirals zip over his head and thought about volunteering to play defensive back. He wasn't joking.

"I could have done it," he declared. "But we'll be OK."

The Gamecocks have a marvelous opportunity to win the SEC East and play for the league title, but they have to shore up their passing defense and win in a stadium where they have never won to do so. Ajiboye is trying to keep his teammates loose with a mixture of popping them during practice, then zinging them in the locker room.

Break down, build up. It's the same approach that he took in his career.

"We do got a good chance, but at the same time, we've got to take it one game at a time," he said. "When it's all said and done, we can end on a bad note or a good note.

"I feel like I can do better. I can do better, so I am going to do better."

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