It’s no great feat of mathematics to plot the relationship between South Carolina’s defensive acumen and its won-loss record in the last five years.
2011: Third in the SEC in total defense, 11-2.
2012: Fourth, 11-2.
2013: Fifth, 11-2.
2014: Thirteenth, 7-6.
2015: Fourteenth, 3-9.
This is the defense that first-year head coach Will Muschamp and his coaching staff have inherited, and they lost the team’s leading tackler from the past three seasons, linebacker Skai Moore, in the offseason because of an injury. In short, there’s work to be done on every level of the defense, and here’s how it’s going through the first two weeks of fall camp:
First-year defensive line coach Lance Thompson would like 10 players “you can win a football game with,” in time for the Sept. 1 season opener against Vanderbilt.
“That would be the ideal, optimistic view,” Thompson said.
What would be the realistic view is what Thompson is trying to discover now.
“I am an optimistic guy, but I wouldn’t want to make any projections on what we have right now. We’ve got the guys we have,” he said. “We are working them hard. They are working hard. We will hopefully get them the best they can be by the opener.”
On most days, the first-team defensive line consists of Darius English at the Buck end, Dante Sawyer at defensive end, and Ulric Jones and Marquavius Lewis at defensive tackle, Jones said.
“Nothing is set in stone, but that’s where we’re working at right now,” Jones said.
Lewis is one of as many as 10 players who are working at both interior and end positions on the line, Thompson said. Muschamp expects Lewis, who started at defensive end last season, to eventually end up at end on traditional downs and on the interior in third-down rush situations, he said. Cross training players will allow the Gamecocks to substitute with their best players rather than being limited by position specific players, Thompson said.
“It has never been about, for me, just put the next guy in. It’s about put the next best player in,” Muschamp said.
Daniel Fennell (Buck), Shameik Blackshear (end) and Kelsey Griffin (tackle) also are regularly in the defensive line rotation through two weeks. The wildcard on the defensive line may be true freshman end D.J. Wonnum, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound three-star prospect who has “the mind of a senior,” Thompson said. Freshman Keir Thomas and Kobe Smith, who both participated in spring practice, also have made appearances along the defensive front in the portions of practice open to the media.
Junior Bryson Allen-Williams is the Gamecocks’ best defensive player, but to think of him strictly as a traditional linebacker may be deceiving. Allen-Williams will start at strongside linebacker barring an injury, but Muschamp plans to use him in multiple ways to take advantage of his athleticism and pass rush ability.
“He has a vast skill set and we need to take advantage of that,” Muschamp said.
Senior Jonathan Walton says he wants to be “the quarterback of the defense” and probably will get that chance as the starting middle linebacker. A significant hamstring injury to Larenz Bryant has left T.J. Holloman as the most obvious choice at the weakside linebacker spot.
True freshman T.J. Brunson has shown the coaches enough this fall that he likely will play in a reserve role this season, and redshirt freshman Sherrod Pittman also probably will be in the rotation somewhere.
The most interesting part of fall camp for the defense is how much press coverage the Gamecocks will be able to play with their current personnel. Muschamp and defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson would love to be able predominantly play man-to-man on the perimeter. Robinson even went so far as to say that “I would imagine somewhere between 60 and 70 percent bump, man-to-man,” this year.
“We are a bump football team,” he said. “That has always been our style of play.”
Muschamp, who said during spring practice that the secondary was “light years away” from where it needed to be, has seemed less optimistic South Carolina will be able to play that much man-to-man this season.
“We are still light years away, but we’ve got a long time,” Robinson said this week. “I am feeling really good about the progress the guys are making. It’s a step-by-step, day-by-day deal.”
Chris Lammons and Rico McWilliams are currently working as the starting cornerbacks with Jamarcus King in the rotation at times, Lammons said. Rashad Fenton is expected to be the starting nickel back. Chaz Elder and D.J. Smith are the top two safeties at the moment, and senior Jordan Diggs probably will be the top backup at both safety and nickel back.
“I feel like we’re ready to play and we’re going to surprise a lot of people,” Lammons said.