When South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp went to SEC Media Days and told everyone who would listen that his three senior defensive linemen had to play well for his team to have a fighting chance this season, the trio took it as a challenge. And they knew their coach was just getting started.
“I know he’s going to be on us every day,” defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth said. “Every drill we do with the offensive line, the focus is going to be on us three. We have to accept that he said that and accept the challenge.”
Muschamp didn’t exactly call out Stallworth, Dante Sawyer and Ulric Jones, but it was a very direct message rarely communicated from a stage like SEC Media Days, where more than 1,000 media members hear mostly generic coach speak.
“I didn’t necessarily say play better. I just said they had to play well for us to play well defensively,” Muschamp explained later. “We struggled consistently stopping the run against good people and in order to stop the run, you need to have your senior leaders step up on the line of scrimmage.”
South Carolina was 92nd in the nation last season in yards per carry allowed (4.8), and its inability to stop the run was particularly glaring against quality opponents. Georgia, Mississippi State, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Clemson averaged 262.2 yards on the ground against the Gamecocks.
“We have a lot of things to prove,” Stallworth said. “Ever since we have been here they say we haven’t been good at stopping the run, which they are right about. It all starts on the line, in the trenches. In order for this defense to have a great year, it starts with the d-line.”
Stallworth (6-foot-2, 305 pounds), Sawyer (6-3, 275) and Jones (6-5, 312) all came to Carolina with high expectations, but none of the three has had a breakout season. Together, they have 141 tackles and 11 tackles-for-loss.
“We have a great team this year, and (Muschamp) kind of put it on us to lead the way,” Jones said. “Whenever the head boss man puts it on your back to lead the way, just got to get it done. That’s a great pressure.”
The defensive linemen are not “hanging our heads,” Sawyer said.
“We are taking it as a challenge, and we’re going to take the challenge the right way,” he said.
Sawyer will start the season at end with Stallworth and Jones at tackle. (Sophomore D.J. Wonnum is expected to start at the other end.) Sophomores Keir Thomas and Kobe Smith are listed as the backups at end and both tackle positions, meaning Sawyer, Stallworth and Jones should be able to hold onto their starting job through fall camp. Whether or not they can meet Muschamp’s expectations remains to be seen.
“Honestly, we improved this summer. It’s going to be a whole different defense out there,” Sawyer said. “We know what we need to bring to the table. We know what is expected of us, what is going to have to have happen for us to be great on defense. Us three seniors, we know.”