Rico Dowdle, Bryan Edwards, Brandon McIlwain.
And that Jake Bentley kid.
They’re familiar names to South Carolina fans, but at this time a year ago they were just potential on the page as members of the Gamecocks’ 2016 signing class. The realities of Will Muschamp’s first team in Columbia told us some of last year’s offensive signees would have to contribute immediately, and Bentley, Dowdle, Edwards and McIlwain answered the bell – to one degree or another.
It’s now year two of the Muschamp era, and the same pressure is on the defensive members of the newly inked 2017 recruiting class. On Wednesday, the Gamecocks signed 19 players to join the five who already had enrolled at midyear.
The 24-player group is ranked as high as No. 17 in the country (by Rivals.com), and the composite rankings compiled by 247Sports.com put South Carolina at No. 20 in the nation and eighth in the SEC.
It will take almost all of the next four years to determine how accurate these ratings are, but it won’t take long to figure out who in this group can contribute immediately on defense.
“I felt like on all three levels we helped ourselves defensively,” Muschamp said.
That’s a good thing because South Carolina needs help, in some cases quickly, on all three levels of defense. The Gamecocks lost both starting defensive ends (including Darius English and his team-high nine sacks), two of their starting linebackers and aren’t exactly settled in the secondary despite returning most of their starters.
In other words, the defense heading into 2017 looks a lot like the offense did heading into 2016. Which players from Wednesday’s class have the ability to follow in the footsteps of Bentley, Dowdle, Edwards, etc.?
“As a staff, we need to be ready to make some quick decisions and put them in one spot and let them play and not move them around too much to where they are confused,” Muschamp said. “There are several guys in this class that I would consider tweener-type bodies.”
Those “tweeners” – such as 6-foot-4, 230-pound Brad Johnson, 6-1, 224-pound Davonne Bowen, 6-2, 238-pound Aaron Sterling and 6-1, 205-pound Damani Staley – could help South Carolina at defensive line or linebacker or some hybrid of both positions.
“One of the hardest things right now on defense is finding linebackers,” Muschamp said. “Because of the way the game is going to a spread game, most high school coaches are putting their faster guys at defensive end to rush the passer and they are playing more defensive back-like guys at linebacker.”
Two players who are definitely defensive linemen and could contribute right away are 6-6, 339-pound Javon Kinlaw and 6-3, 277-pound M.J. Webb. Kinlaw is a four-star prospect who spent last year at Jones County Junior College and has three years of eligibility remaining. Webb is an early enrollee who participated in bowl practices with the Gamecocks.
“Got my first double team, I got put on my butt. That was a new experience for me,” Webb said Wednesday, illustrating the difficulty of any first-year player, even a really good one, helping immediately at the college level.
The class’ most highly recruited defensive player is Jamyest Williams, a four-star cornerback who picked the Gamecocks over home state Georgia. He is expected to play right away in some capacity, as are junior college defensive back signees Kaleb Chalmers and Keisean Nixon.
“Obviously, when you sign a junior college player, you’re expecting that player to come in and contribute,” Muschamp said. “We’ve got to improve in the secondary, and I feel like we’ve signed some guys who could contribute immediately in the secondary.”
The Gamecocks gave up an average of 44 points in their final three games of the 2016 season. They hope they’ve signed some guys who can contribute immediately throughout the defense.