When teams look for improvement, fans most often place their faith in the unknown young players whose talent is still not defined.
But the veterans still factor in, and with a unit such as South Carolina’s defensive line, a trio of upperclassmen might loom large.
The group has five players returning with a decent level of experience in the rotation. Two were true freshmen, but the others are seniors Dante Sawyer, Ulric Jones and Taylor Stallworth. The latter two are returning starters, while the former backed up Marquavius Lewis and showed flashes of playmaking ability.
Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp said the flashes grew more consistent, with good reason.
“Dante had labrum surgery last year,” Muschamp told media members before a Gamecock Club meeting in Atlanta. “He missed an entire offseason of lifting, and that affects you. He played much better as the year wore on because he’d been in the weight room all year. You’ve got to build strength levels to be able to play in our league.”
Sawyer had four tackles for loss, a sack and two hurries to go along with 25 tackles.
Jones ended up with the most tackles of any of USC’s interior linemen, making 42 tackles in his first season with a settled position. The tall (6-foot-6, 309) Alabama product played tight end and defensive end before getting slotted at defensive tackle.
“Ulric Jones is a guy that I think improved tremendously from Day 1,” Muschamp said. “He’s a guy that didn’t really find a home position-wise til we got there and has been a guy that really has been a productive guy for us.”
Muschamp also has faith in what Stallworth will be able to bring the team next season. Really healthy for the first time in his career last year, the 308-pounder made 41 tackles, three for loss with a sack, and was the team’s most consistent interior player getting off blocks and getting opposing runners down quickly.
“Taylor Stallworth, I think, will be as good an inside player (as there is) in the SEC,” Muschamp said. “He’s a guy that plays with good pad level, good strike. He can anchor. He does have pass-rush ability inside.”