Position preview: Gamecocks counting on young D-linemen to step up
At the start of the 2016 season, South Carolina’s coaching staff was faced with a conundrum. They needed one more defensive tackle, and had to choose which end was going to move inside.
This is how Keir Thomas, who enrolled at 230 pounds and has the body type of a defensive end, found himself working on the inside.
“We could have either moved him or Quay (Lewis),” defensive line coach Lance Thompson said. “So we said, ‘Hey, Quay’s been a defensive end, let’s leave him there and have a solid player, instead of moving him to a new position and making two positions weaker.’
“So Keir went in there and did the best he could. I’m glad we have him because we really didn’t have any other answers.”
Thomas added 35 pounds to his frame before the season started and ended up dueling with SEC interior linemen in Year 1.
Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp often talks about the challenge of dealing with a 600-plus pound double team. The freshman got his share, starting well before the first game.
“It was hard,” Thomas said. “I think we had like a scrimmage or something like that. I got double-teamed by, I think, (Alan) Knott and Cory (Helms). I was pretty much like, ‘OK I gotta get it.’
“They pretty much made me better.”
Two starts, 13 games and 24 tackles later, he’ll be switching positions again.
Thomas and Thompson confirmed the second-year Gamecock will spend much of the coming season at defensive end. He’ll spend some time at tackle, but only against team’s where the matchups make sense.
He played at both spots in the open periods of practice during USC’s first week of spring ball.
In some ways, he’s helping replace the graduating Lewis, and he’s been impressing coaches since he arrived last spring.
“He is a smart kid,” Thompson said. “I think against spread-type teams, he can play inside. And then hopefully, he can give us some stuff on the edge and be a backup to Dante (Sawyer) or compete with Dante.”
The coach admitted Thomas didn’t play well last season, but life isn’t easy as a 260-pound three-technique. Thompson added Thomas might have put on too much weight.
Thomas came to the Gamecocks as one of the more decorated players in his class. The Miami product had been a Florida State commit and, in the very early stages, projected as a Buck pass rusher.
He said playing as a freshman allowed the game to slow down for him. Starting tackle Taylor Stallworth praised his quickness and explosiveness and said those will be assets at whatever position he’s in.
“I’m going to go through the spring and see how that goes,” Thomas said, adding he weighed 260 pounds when practices began. “If I have to gain weight, I’ll gain weight. If I have to stay where I’m at, I’ll stay where I’m at.”
Wherever he settles, he’ll take something valuable from last season’s experience.
“He’s a fighter now,” Thompson said. “He ain’t afraid of nothing.”