South Carolina coaches had an eye to the future when Kelsey Griffin played as a true freshman defensive tackle this past season.
Junior Kelcy Quarles was a possibility to turn pro. Fellow tackle J.T. Surratt also was draft-eligible. Though his game action was limited, Griffin’s role gave the Gamecocks another player with experience.
“We felt like he was one of the guys we couldn’t redshirt because we had an inclination that Kelcy was leaving,” defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. “J.T. could’ve come out and we could’ve been sitting here with a guy that had never played a snap. The experience he got will help him in the future.”
The future starts this spring for Griffin, who is battling to cement a role in the defensive tackle rotation for the upcoming season.
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The 6-foot-2, 307-pounder from Buford, Ga., had 12 tackles and half a sack in nine games in 2013. Most important, he said, was that he was able to practice and play alongside veterans Surratt, Quarles, Chaz Sutton and Jadeveon Clowney.
“I did learn a lot playing next to those guys,” Griffin said. “There are still a lot of things I need to work on. I’m just trying to take this spring and get better every day, be more disciplined, learn my assignment and do what I need to do to get on the field.”
Griffin was a four-star prospect and the highest-rated signee in USC’s 2013 class, according to 247Sports’ Composite rankings.
He is behind junior Phillip Dukes and ahead of newcomer Abu Lamin at one of the defensive tackle spots on the spring depth chart. Among his spring goals is to soak in defensive line coach Deke Adams’ guidance, including making better use of his hands.
“I’m hoping to see him grow up and step into a role of wanting to earn a lot more playing time and developing into being a good player for us,” Adams said. “Right now, the big part is picking the system up. He was a freshman last year and his head was swimming. Now it’s just feeling comfortable with where he’s at and what he knows and putting it to work.”
Quarles led the team with 9.5 sacks last year to go with 39 tackles. Adams doesn’t expect a drop-off in production with Griffin, Lamin, Dukes and others with experience, such as Gerald Dixon Jr.
“To be honest with you, I’m not sure if we’ll miss a beat inside,” Adams said. “That’s not taking anything from Kelcy, because he did an excellent job for us. We have some guys there that can play. They’ve just got to grow up.”
Griffin this spring is paying attention to and learning from his older defensive line teammates even as each is battling for playing time in the year ahead, he said. He regards his freshman season, which included five tackles against Coastal Carolina, as valuable to his future.
“I don’t regret anything,” he said. “God has a plan for me. The plan was that I played in a couple of games. It wasn’t as many as I wanted to, but I got learning experience, and I appreciated every moment of it.”