At the start of spring practice, as South Carolina football coach Will Muschamp ran down his roster, he stopped at his defensive line. When he mentioned the trio of second-year players competing for snaps at reserve defensive tackle, his word choice showed urgency.
The word he chose: “need.”
“We really need these next three guys – Stephon Taylor, Kobe Smith and Aaron Thompson – to really step up,” Muschamp said. “They’ve been through a redshirt season, and these guys need to take a step forward for us defensively. A huge part of our success is going to be how those guys continue to come on for us.”
Taylor and Thompson redshirted, while Smith was the team’s fifth or sixth tackle in 2016. The Gamecocks have steady returning hands in Taylor Stallworth and Ulric Jones manning the starter spots, but the reserves are unproven as they try to replace last year’s rotation players.
In 2016, Keir Thomas played out of position inside, but he’s moving to end. Kelsey Griffin and Abu Lamin graduated.
Gamecocks defensive line coach Lance Thompson pointed out tackle is a learned position, something players often have to build up to.
“They’ve got to grow,” Lance Thompson said. “Up front, it takes time because it’s a strength game, it’s a toughness game, it’s learning the block and key diagnosis. Everything happens at the snap of the ball. When you’re off the ball or outside, sometimes you don’t ever touch anybody.”
Stallworth said the biggest thing for Taylor and Aaron Thompson was just picking up the system. Thomas said he’s seen progress.
“Aaron Thompson, his physical ability, he’s going to come around,” Thomas said. “He should be able to do big things for us. Taylor’s got good hands.”
But the staff was also clear, the young trio of defensive tackles aren’t close to where they’ll need to be. At this point, Smith is listed as the heaviest (297 pounds), with Aaron Thompson at 288 and Taylor at 271.
Lance Thompson took particular note of Aaron Thompson and his growth since arriving last summer.
“Aaron’s come a long way,” Lance Thompson said. “I’m really proud of Aaron, the way he’s grown and matured as a young man. He’s come a million miles and we’ve still got a long journey to go.He’s got a good attitude. He’s a wonderful young man. We’ve just got to get him consistent and I want to get him a little tougher, meaner, nastier, a little bit more fight in him.”
The team will also get some extra reinforcements in the summer, with Javon Kinlaw (6-foot-6, 340 pounds), plus 277-pound M.J. Webb already on campus.