Josh Kendall

Can South Carolina defense overcome the big issue Georgia exposed?

Heading into the Georgia game, South Carolina coach Will Muschamp was concerned about how his defensive line would hold up against the Bulldogs’ mammoth offensive line. It turned out to be a valid concern.

Georgia rushed for 271 yards, gained 473 overall and scored 21 unanswered points in the third quarter to put away a 41-17 victory. The Bulldogs are gone, but the issue of South Carolina’s defensive line play remains. The loss of starting defensive end D.J. Wonnum for a month because of an ankle injury only exacerbates them.

Asked if he was concerned about the overall bulk of his defensive line without the 270-pound Wonnum in the rotation, replied, “Well, yes.”

The first impact of Wonnum’s loss is that it will increase the number of snaps played by Bryson Allen-Williams at the Buck end position. Allen-Williams is one of South Carolina’s best defenders, but he’s only 230 pounds. Daniel Fennell (246 pounds) and Brad Johnson (250 pounds) also will get more playing at the Buck position.

On the opposite side of the line at defensive end, the Gamecocks are expected to start 245-pound Aaron Sterling with 270-pound Shameik Blackshear as the top backup. Starting defensive tackle Keir Thomas (276 pounds) also could be moved outside but that creates depth issues at defensive tackle, where South Carolina already is using three true freshmen in the rotation.

The specific problem South Carolina faced against Georgia and figures to face against other teams on the schedule due to a lack of size as much as anything else is an inability to consistently “set the edge.” That simply means it’s the responsibility of the outside defender (usually a defensive end, an outside linebacker or sometimes a defensive back in the box) to make sure the ball carrier doesn’t get outside of him. The edge player (or force player) is tasked with making the tackle or forcing the ball carrier back toward the middle of the defense.

“Obviously, Georgia attacked us on the edges,” Muschamp said. “That was something you saw on the first series and realized what was going to happen, so we’ve got to do a better job of holding the point on the edges. We’ve looked at some different lineups that we can possibly look at as far as setting better edges of our defense.”

The Gamecocks see the field next when they travel to Vanderbilt on Sept. 22. Their game against Marshall set for this weekend was canceled because of Hurricane Florence.

Weakside linebacker Sherrod Greene said he and his teammates have to be “more disciplined” with their edge responsibilities.

“Be more patient, and let the plays come to us. We can’t just force anything,” he said. “We have to make our plays that are put in position for us. It’s just discipline at all.”

South Carolina’s defenders are coached to keep their outside arm free of the defender when setting the edge, Greene said.

“If it bounces out, you are going to make the play because you have to stay outside,” he said.

That’s what Muschamp is hoping his players can do at least.