South Carolina begins spring football practice on Wednesday. The Gamecocks were 7-6 a year ago. The spring game will be held April 6 at noon and broadcast by the SEC Network.
Here are the top five storylines surrounding the Gamecocks defense headed into spring:
Is this that defensive line?
Entering head coach Will Muschamp’s fourth season, the Gamecocks still haven’t had a dominant defensive line. This group could come the closest to being that, but a lot will depend on health and development, which can be tracked through the spring. On paper, this is Muschamp’s first defensive line with good-to-very good veteran talent and exciting young players. Senior end D.J. Wonnum and senior tackle Javon Kinlaw will be counted on to lead the way, but both are coming off injuries that hampered them through much of 2018. Kinlaw isn’t expected to do any full contact work in the spring while he recovers from hip surgery. What the defensive line needs is for sophomore J.J. Enagbare and Rick Sandidge to take a big jump and early enrollee freshman Zacch Pickens to be ready to provide something in the middle.
Who takes over at cornerback?
Rashad Fenton and Keisean Nixon, who started most of the season on the edge in 2018, are gone. Sophomore Jaycee Horn will play a big role somewhere in the defensive backfield, and corner appears to be his most natural position. Sophomore Israel Mukuamu came on strong in the second half of 2018 and probably will get the spot opposite Horn to start spring practice at least. Southern Cal transfer Jamel Cook could also be a factor at cornerback and/or nickel. Two corners who thrive in man-to-man coverage would give Muschamp and defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson more options than they have had in the past.
Is there a safety rotation out there somewhere?
All of a sudden Jamyest Williams is a junior, and he still doesn’t have a guaranteed starting job despite what was expected when he signed in 2017. The Gamecocks experimented with him at safety last year and probably will start him there this spring. One spot appears locked down by R.J. Roderick, who started the final five games of the 2018 there. Jaylin Dickerson is a wild card in the mix. The coaching staff has liked him for two seasons, but injuries have kept him off the field.
Is there any linebacker depth?
That depends on how Damani Staley, Rosendo Louis and Ernest Jones develop. All three played as true freshmen last year with Staley emerging as the top producer of the three with 31 tackles in 13 games. Jones had 16 tackles in five games, and Louis, the most celebrated of the three when he enrolled, had 12 tackles in seven games. Louis was slowed last year by a shoulder injury that will keep him out of spring, but the development of Staley and Jones will be something to watch.
First defensive coaching change
The first three seasons of Muschamp’s tenure featured the same defensive coaching staff, but this season line coach Lance Thompson has been replaced by John Scott Jr. of Arkansas. Muschamp said Scott’s experience with a 3-4 defense was one of the reasons for his hiring. The Gamecocks have used three- and four-man fronts under Muschamp, and it’ll be interesting to see if Scott’s hiring moves the needle more toward three-man fronts.