When John Scott Jr. was coaching for the New York Jets, the team’s defensive coaching staff did a study of college defensive tackles trying to determine their pass-rushing ability.
“We looked at how many times a game out of a 65-70 play game would a d-tackle actually get to rush the passer, and it was like five or six times for the whole entire game,” Scott Jr. said. “When you get that time it’s critical that you do something with it, but it has changed your pass rush.”
Changes in offenses, chiefly run-pass option plays and quicker throws that leave little time for defenders to get to the quarterback with the ball in his hand, are making sacks more difficult to come by, and few teams are feeling that pain acutely than South Carolina.
Since leading the SEC in sacks in 2012 with 43 (a conference-best 13 of which came from Jadeveon Clowney), the Gamecocks have averaged an 11th-place finish in the league in sacks. In the Will Muschamp era, South Carolina has finished 11th and 9th in the league in sacks. The Gamecocks thought they had solved that particular problem last year with veteran bookends D.J. Wonnum and Bryson Allen-Williams entering the season but due to injury Wonnum and Allen-Williams only played three games together during the 2018 season.
Allen-Williams is gone to graduation now, but Wonnum is back to full strength after a senior ankle injury and once again South Carolina thinks it has enough pieces on the outside of the defensive line to turn around its sack swoon.
“Definitely,” defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson said.
This spring, the Gamecocks have Wonnum, Aaron Sterling, J.J. Enagbare and early enrollee freshmen Rodricus Fitten and Joseph Anderson working at end. In the fall, they will get Danny Fennell back from a knee injury. Senior Keir Thomas also will play both end and tackle in the fall.
“That’s four or five guys who can really get after it. I’m excited about it,” Robinson said. “I’m excited to not have to pressure all the time be able to just rush four and get to the quarterback.”
The Gamecocks also have a new defensive line coach in Scott, who replaces Lance Thompson. While he hopes to help South Carolina boost its sack totals, he says the Gamecocks will play run first across the defensive front because most offenses dictate that approach.
“I remember when I first got into coaching, even in ’08 and ’09, the first thing you told that 3-technique was he had to beat that guy off the edge. Now you’re telling that guy, you have to do a great job of constricting that (rushing) lane,” Scott said. “That’s taken out a lot of the straight true pass rush you get. The thing that we have to be good at it is converting from playing run to pass. It’s opposite in the NFL, they want those guys to get off the ball and go rush the passer. We have to train them, ‘Hey, that’s not where we’re at right now. We have to play run first and react to pass.’”