D.J. Wonnum never expected to be the factor he was on South Carolina’s defense last season.
“Coming in, I had the mindset of working, but I wasn’t expecting to play as much as I did, so pretty much I felt great about my freshman year,” said Wonnum, a 6-foot-4, 251-pound defensive end who had 32 tackles and 3.5 tackles-for-loss as a true freshman in 2016.
Now Wonnum and all of his defensive teammates are going to have to exceed expectations if the Gamecocks are going to have the kind of pass rush that is critical for a good defense in the Southeastern Conference. They did not have it last year, finishing 11th in the SEC and 92nd in the nation with 21 sacks.
“I’m all for it,” coach Will Muschamp cracked at the idea of getting more pressure on the quarterback this season.
The trick will be doing it after losing last year’s top lineman – defensive end Darius English, who had nine of those 21 sacks – and with an expected starting defensive line that has a combined six sacks in their careers. (Senior Dante Sawyer has 3.5; Wonnum has 1.5, senior Taylor Stallworth has one, and senior Ulric Jones has none.)
Stallworth, a tackle, and Sawyer, an end, have both made progress in their pass rush skills, defensive line coach Lance Thompson said.
“Taylor, without a doubt, is a special guy, SEC top level player. He needs to play really well for us and play a lot for us,” Thompson said. “Last year, he had the (pectoral injury). This year, he is more healthy. He’s a smart guy, strong fella, has good feet, plays with good pad level, plays square to the line of scrimmage.”
Defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson believes the speed and explosion work done by the team’s strength and conditioning staff this offseason will help the team’s veterans who have yet to make a significant impact, especially on Stallworth.
“I think Taylor will be great inside,” Robinson said. “We have to continue to find some pass rushers, maybe these young guys like Aaron Sterling, maybe Brad Johnson, some guys that maybe can provide some immediate pass rush.”
The Gamecocks will try to get quarterback pressure from linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams, who will at times line up in the Buck defensive end spot, but Wonnum is the player almost everyone is expecting to lead the way to the offensive backfield.
“Dennis Wonnum is a guy who has really, really impressed me,” Robinson said. “He’s very good with his hands. He’s a very conscientious kid. He knows what to do. He knows how to do it and the way it should be done. He’s a really good player and a really good person. I have been around a lot of guys, and when you’re a good person and a good player, it’s the kind of guys I like.”
Wonnum’s goal this year is to build on his surprising success from a year ago, he said.
“My personal expectation is to continue to develop, continue to get stronger, faster, quicker, keep working on my moves, football technique and stuff like that,” Wonnum said.
If his teammates follow along, South Carolina might be able to make life a little more uncomfortable for opposing quarterbacks this season.