It’s hard to imagine South Carolina’s pass rush being worse in 2017 than it was in 2016, but it’s possible. The Gamecocks were 11th in the SEC and 92nd in the nation last year in sacks with 21. A dozen of those are gone to graduation, leaving a clear mandate for the defensive coaching staff this spring – find some pass rushers.
“We will definitely have to figure that out,” defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson said. “Dennis Wonnum is a guy that we hold in high regard. He had a really good offseason. We are excited about Dennis, and he can do some things rushing the quarterback. Obviously, we need more.”
Wonnum is a rising sophomore who had 29 tackles and 1.5 sacks last year as a true freshman, going from lightly recruited to heavy contributor. He opened spring practice, last Saturday, as a starting defensive end along with Dante Sawyer as they attempt to replace the experience and production lost with last year’s starting ends – Darius English (nine sacks, 57 tackles) and Marquavius Lewis (1.5 sacks, 46 tackles).
South Carolina’s expected starters at defensive tackle – Taylor Stallworth and Ulric Jones – have been occasional frontline players throughout their career, but only combined for one sack last season.
“We need a pass rusher who can effectively affect the quarterback on multiple occasions throughout the ballgame,” Robinson said. “We don’t talk in terms of sacks. We talk in terms of affecting the quarterback.”
The Gamecocks goal is to affect the quarterback on 30-to-40 percent of his drop backs. That could mean a sack, a hurry, a hit or a batted down pass. Last year, South Carolina had a sack or hurry on 13 percent of their opponents’ pass attempts.
“It’s going to take a collective effort,” Robinson said. “It’s not one guy that can replace that. It’s got to be something we can do from a fundamental standpoint to affect the quarterback.”
The Gamecocks will try to implement more opportunities for linebackers Skai Moore and Bryson Allen-Williams to be involved in pass rushing this spring. They will also give a long look to incoming freshmen defensive ends M.J. Webb (who is practicing this spring), as well as Javon Kinlaw, Brandon Johnson and Aaron Sterling.
Defensive line coach Lance Thompson mentioned incoming outside linebacker Davonne Bowen as a possibility for early playing time because of his speed rushing ability.
“It’s the nature of the beast now that you have to have speed guys on the edge to run around tackles,” Thompson said. “The passing game, it’s screens, bubble passes, quick throws. You have to have a special guy on the edge with speed that can get there.
“We are hoping those young guys can do that.”
Thompson also hopes his veterans are better pass rushers because of experience and knowledge of the system.
“Hopefully the pre-snap part of it we will get better at,” he said. “The technical part of the game, we struggled with that at times last year.”