South Carolina Football: Spring preview – defense

When the South Carolina Football team takes to the Proving Grounds for spring practice, they, like the offense, will be faced with the task of replacing some of most prolific Gamecocks ever to play.

Ever since Spurrier arrived at South Carolina in 2005, it has been great defense that has been at the heart of great seasons. Particularly in the last several seasons, the Gamecocks have been marked by a ferocious defensive line.

Since 2007, South Carolina has been transitioning flawlessly from playmaker to playmaker: from Eric Norwood, to Cliff Matthews, to Melvin Ingram, and to Jadeveon Clowney.

Ever since Clowney stepped foot on campus, that question of “who will make the plays” has been unnecessary. For the first time in three years though, we ask that question again.

Perhaps though, in asking that, we are asking the wrong question.

Like the offense, the issue may not be, who will make “the Hit Part II”, but rather, can we replace the efficiency.

In response to a similar question, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward that he “know[s that] it’s hard to replace a guy like Clowney, [and] that’s why it will take 11 guys on defense doing the exact same thing all the time. We won’t be able to depend on one guy to make big plays like Clowney did for us in the past. From that standpoint alone, the coaches think we should be better because we’ll put 11 guys out there that hopefully will do the same thing all the time.” (per Gamecockcentral).

Many people found Jadeveon Clowney’s year to be statistically disappointing; others , like ESPN’s Todd McShay, attribute that to the fact that Clowney is one of the most schemed for players ever. Regardless of how many sacks of tackles for loss Clowney had, as of today, there is no one that teams feel like they must avoid at all costs.

For now.

Redshirt sophomore Darius English is the starter at Clowney’s right defensive end spot, and tall though he might be, at 240 lbs, he is significantly smaller than Jadeveon. His goal for this offseason has been to put on the good kind of weight so that he will be better suited to face SEC caliber offensive linemen week in and week out.

English is a solid player who has seen a fair amount of action in the last year and even if does not have a monster year statistically, will be counted on to ensure that the defense does not see a significant drop-off from last year, a year in which they were consistently in the top portion of the SEC in most major defensive categories.

More so than the defensive line, South Carolina’s concern will be on the secondary, where none of their top three corners from last year are returning (graduation, leaving early for the draft, and transfer). Redshirt sophomore Rico McWilliams will be the only returning cornerback with experience, meaning that he can penciled in at one corner spot.

The Gamecocks signed five cornerbacks this past recruiting cycle, but how will the young talent handle the trail by fire?

Look for 4-star recruits D.J. and Wesley Green to make a serious push for the second cornerback spot. They will be competing (in addition to the other incoming freshman) with Ronnie Martin, Jamari Smith (switching back from running back), and Ali Groves, none of whom have seen significant enough action to cement them in the starting spot opposite McWilliams.

The bright spots of the South Carolina defense at this point are linebacker, where last year’s inexperienced talents are now savvy veterans, and defensive tackle, arguably the deepest position on the team (running back maybe?). Skai Moore in particular, after having a spectacular freshman year, will be looking to climb the ranks of great South Carolina linebackers and make himself known to the rest of the SEC. In the trenches, the addition of Junior College transfer Abu Lamin will bolster an already deep position that, despite losing all-SEC tackle Kelcy Quarles, may have no drop off from last year. Lamin will have to fight Phillip Dukes, Deon Green, and Kelsy Griffin for playing time, all of whom are solidly behind J.T. Surratt and Gerald Dixon Jr.

The two-deep at the start of spring practice should look something like this:

Defensive End: Darius English, Gerald Dixon, Mason Harris, Cedric Cooper

Defensive Tackle: J.T. Surratt, Gerald Dixon Jr., Abu Lamin (JUCO), Phillip Dukes

Linebacker: Kaiwan Lewis (MLB), Skai Moore (OLB), T.J. Holloman (MLB), Marcquis Roberts (OLB)

Spur: Sharrod Golightly, Jordan Diggs

Cornerback: Rico McWilliams, D.J. Smith, Ali Groves, Wesley Green

Safety: Chaz Elder, Brison Williams, T.J. Gurley, Chris Moody