South Carolina’s projected 2018 depth chart on defense.
No. 1 group: Javon Kinlaw, Keir Thomas
No. 2 group: Kobe Smith, Jabari Ellis
The nomenclature at this point is a little tricky, as USC is in position to deploy a lot of three-down looks with flexible fronts. Kinlaw has the makings of a star who could jump to the NFL after next year, while Thomas was subtly very good as a sophomore (he jumped a productive senior in the lineup). Thomas can play a hybrid end-tackle role. Smith was a solid reserve at the position last season, while Ellis was brought in out of junior college, which means he’ll likely factor in. The most interesting part of the group might be the rest fighting for snaps and angling to surprise: former ends bulking up to tackle in Tyreek Johnson and Kingsley Enagbare, four-star signee Rick Sandidge and former four-star M.J. Webb.
One to watch: Sandidge, who could have star potential early at a tough position (the staff also said Enagbare will play, but life is tough as an undersized first-year tackle).
No. 1: Aaron Sterling
No. 2: Shameik Blackshear
The coaches made clear they’ve been enamored with Sterling, who carved out a role as a true freshman. He’s not big at 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, but they like what he can do. Blackshear is still looking to make good on his considerable rating as a recruit. This is perhaps a position that most bears watching, because outside those two, no one cleanly fits the role but several others (Keir Thomas, buck/strongside linebacker Danny Fennell) might also slide over there.
One to watch: Without a lot of up-and-comers at the spot, it’s Sterling. He’s making a big jump in role into a crucial spot.
No. 1: D.J. Wonnum
No. 2: Brad Johnson
Wonnum has emerged as one of USC’s best defensive players. His big question is, can he take a next step to being hyper-productive and perhaps competing for honors in the stacked world of SEC pass rushers. Johnson has added 10-plus pounds since he arrived on campus, and worked his way into the rotation by the end of last season (a tall order considering Wonnum’s presence). The Buck spot is often about trying to fit pieces into the role and seeing how they take, so what comes behind them will have to develop.
One to watch: Johnson, if he can built off the end of last season, and if anyone else finds his way into the group.
No. 1: Bryson Allen-Williams
No. 2: Eldridge Thomson
No. 3: Damani Staley
In some ways, this might be a placeholder for Allen-Williams. He can play all three spots and Buck. He’ll be used where needed, but he was here primarily the last time Skai Moore was off the field. Thompson has the mobility to do a lot at this spot from a coverage standpoint, and his growth could set the table at the spot. Staley is still young, and Sherrod Greene can also play the spot because of USC’s aggressive cross-training.
No. 1: T.J. Brunson
No. 2: Sherrod Greene
No. 3: Rosendo Louis
Brunson remains the guy in the middle, a tackling machine as a centerpiece in his first starting season last year. There were some spots he could clean up according to some advanced metrics, but the staff trusts him as a leader. Louis could well be the No. 2, as he showed a good bit in the spring and brings a good bit of heft, but Greene also did some nice things as a freshman and could work a few spots.
One to watch: Louis. If he can be a rotation guy, it gives USC even more flexibility at these spots.
No. 1: Danny Fennell
No. 2: Sherrod Greene
This is an odd position because it’s hardly used in some games and a big factor in others. Fennell got most of the snaps in the bowl game and generally held his own (he was considered a Buck for parts of the start of the season). Greene got his first start at the position and showed promise. Allen-Williams started last season here, so it will likely be in a lot of flux.
One to watch: It's tricky, since the position isn't always part of the defense, but probably Allen-Williams if he can provide a different dimension there.
No. 1: Keisean Nixon
No. 2: Jamyest Williams
Will Muschamp moved Nixon inside after spring with the aim of getting more run support from the position. Based on how Nixon played in the bowl, that seems like a good choice. He was slowed by enrolling late, but looked competent. Williams was moved to safety after spring, but this staff hasn’t been shy about dropping safeties to nickel in the past.
One to watch: Nixon, just how he takes to being a real contributor after last season. USC remains perilously unproven at defensive back,so there could be movement depending on who emerges.
No. 1 group: Nick Harvey, Rashad Fenton
No. 2 group: Israel Mukuamu, Jaycee Horn
Fenton is a stalwart and has been for two years. Harvey was good enough to start his junior season at A&M and play a lot as a sophomore before his injury. Behind him, it’s less clear. Mukuamu played well in spring despite his size (6-foot-4) and Horn has the pedigree (four-star prospect, son of an NFL player). There will likely be spots where corner robs some other spots (Nixon from nickel or Williams from safety). USC has played little more than two guys at the two spots for long stretches the past few years. Maybe this is when it changes.
One to watch: Horn. Mukuamu showed he might be a guy who contributes quickly. Horn has ground to make up in a short time.
No. 1 group: Jamyest Williams, Steven Montac
No. 2 group: J.T. Ibe, Jaylin Dickerson
On his Spurs Up tour stops, Muschamp said Montac is the only safety he fully trusts, high praise for a former late roster addition. Williams is moving to the spot, but he’s got range for days and a lot of potential (he alternated brilliant plays with some struggles in coverage and injuries as a true freshman starter). If he can stay healthy, Dickerson has a good chance to establish himself as a starter, but he’s hardly been healthy across the past year-plus. He could add nice size at 6-foot-1. As a grad transfer moving up a level, Ibe probably provides steady backup. Behind that top four are newcomer R.J. Roderick and redshirt Zay Brown.
One to watch: Roderick. As an early enrollee, he already looked like a college player at 6-foot, 210 pounds. He’s transitioning from playing almost exclusively offense in high school, but Muschamp raved about his instincts and said he will play this season.