While he received preseason all-conference nods from Phil Steele and Athlon Sports, the senior defensive end was left off the official all-SEC media preseason team, and his name has yet to pop up on any watch lists like fellow senior defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw.
Not that it bothers him.
“It’s been like that. I’m not tripping about any of that,” Wonnum said.
A year ago, Wonnum was coming off a sophomore season in which he recorded 57 tackles — 13 for loss and six sacks — leading the Gamecocks as a rare underclassman captain. But an ankle injury in the 2018 season opener haunted him all season, and he finished with just 11 tackles and two sacks in five games.
Now the Stone Mountain, Georgia, native is back to 100% health, he says, with the goal of recapturing the form that played a significant role in the Gamecocks’ strong 2017 campaign.
“As far as goals, my biggest thing is affecting the quarterback, making him uncomfortable,” Wonnum said at the outset of training camp. “Once he gets uncomfortable, he kinda gets out of his game, and that’s when plays starts happening for the ends, the D-tackles, the DBs, all of that.”
The hope is that discomfort will lead to turnovers, an area that coach Will Muschamp has homed in on as crucial for South Carolina’s chances this year. And as the team’s perceived best pass rusher, Wonnum will presumably be responsible for generating most of that discomfort. But he’s not putting pressure on himself
“I feel like we’re all No. 1 (pass rushers) because without the inside guys, there are no ends, and without the ends to make the quarterback step up, there’s no inside guys,” Wonnum said. “So I feel like we all work off each other and make each other good.”
Muschamp has raved about his defensive line’s depth this season, and Wonnum said he sees its impact in individual matchups in the trenches.
“It helps me a lot, because they can’t really double-team one person. Having (Kinlaw), having Keir Thomas, (Kobe Smith), having (Aaron Sterling), they can’t really double-team one of us, so just one-on-one is going to be a big thing for us this year,” Wonnum said.
While he might not draw any double teams, Wonnum has drawn high praise from his position coach Scott Jr., who gave him an NFL comparison.
“He’s a special guy. He can set the edge for us, he can rush the passer. You know, I was with the (New York) Jets for two years, and when I look at his body type, I look at his athleticism, he was better than some of the guys that we had up there,” Scott Jr. said. “I think he’s got a lot of potential. He can be special for us.”
Working toward realizing that potential meant expanding his repertoire this offseason beyond effective pass rusher.
“I pretty much worked on getting stronger, creating separation, being able to come off the ball and separate and get rid of the blocker and make the tackle,” Wonnum said. “Because the run game, stopping the run is a big emphasis for us this year.”
The Gamecocks’ run defense in 2018 “flat out struggled,” Muschamp said at SEC media days. But Wonnum is optimistic that will change this year.
“We got the experience, we got the size, we got the talent, we got the speed, we got the strength, we got all that. And it’s just us putting it together, and going into training camp ... I feel like we’re gonna do that and we’re gonna be able to shock a lot of people this year,” Wonnum said.