Taylor has edge on Gamecocks' end rush

Lawing has several option to find compliment for Matthews

semerson@thestate.comApril 2, 2010 

The question was put to Brad Lawing, USC's defensive line coach: When you have Cliff Matthews at one defensive end spot, what are you looking for at the other spot?

Lawing decided to get greedy.

"Cliff. I'm looking for Cliff," he said. "Cliff Matthews is an outstanding football player, and if I could have two of him out there, I'd be a happy coach."

The Gamecocks hope they have the closest thing in Devin Taylor.

With Matthews sitting out the spring as he recovers from shoulder surgery, the "other" defensive end spot is getting a lot of attention. In his absence, the Gamecocks have had a hard look at all the candidates to start opposite Matthews, a second-team All-SEC pick last season.

Taylor entered the spring with the best shot, and Lawing said Thursday that the Beaufort native has begun to separate himself. It's easy to see why: The 6-foot-8 Taylor runs the field smoothly and was a state triple-jump champion in high school.

"He's a football player," Lawing said. "He's not Eric Norwood, but that was one of the best things I could say about Eric was he was a football player. And that's what Devin is. He's just got a knack for making plays and being at the right place at the right time."

After redshirting as a true freshman, Taylor had a strong debut in last season's opener against N.C. State. He forced a fumble on his first college play, and the Gamecocks recovered to set up their only touchdown in a 7-3 win. Taylor later blocked a punt, made a sack, forced another fumble and had a total of three tackles for loss.

It would've been impossible to keep up that pace, and Taylor's stats tailed off. But he started the final five games, splitting time with Clifton Geathers, whose early departure for the NFL draft cleared the way.

"Starting off (like) last year sort of makes me want to do better this year," Taylor said. "More towards pushing myself more. Help the team. Make plays."

But if Taylor slips, there are other candidates. Chaz Sutton, who received a medical redshirt as a freshman, also has a lot of potential. Fellow youngsters Aldrick Fordham and Chaun Gresham also are getting snaps. Byron McKnight could benefit from a full spring at defensive end after a short-lived stint at tight end last spring.

Matthews and McKnight are next to each other in the media guide because of their last names, but that's where the similarities end. Matthews has been a factor since he stepped on campus, starting 33 games. He had seven sacks last year, along with three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries.

McKnight, a redshirt junior, has had trouble staying on the field. He had two sacks in 2008 and played in all 13 games. But he played 10 games last year, recording one tackle. But he now is back at his preferred position.

"I was relieved actually to be honest with you," McKnight said of the move back to defense. "I mean because tight end, it wasn't for me. I'd rather go hit somebody than position myself to go block somebody."

What McKnight can offer over the others is experience. Lawing likes to rotate his ends, so the opportunity figures to be there.

"This spring, I'm going full speed, I feel like I know a lot more than I did in the past," McKnight said. "And once you know everything, you just go full speed. And that's what I've been doing."

Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.

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