The past two years have been the golden age of South Carolina defensive lines. It wasn't too long ago when the line was our big weakness, one regularly exploited by teams like Arkansas and Florida that boasted dominant offensive lines and dangerous running backs. Sure, we've always had some decent players on the line, particularly at defensive end. But we've lacked elite talent at tackle, which is frequently one of the positions that separates the wheat from the chafe in the SEC. We've also lacked depth at both positions, which has led to late-season breakdowns.
This has all changed dramatically over the last two years. With improved recruiting, we've finally begun to field a legitimate, deep SEC defensive line, and that, as much as anything, has facilitated our rise from being a somewhat competitive SEC team to being one of the league's better teams. The improvement at tackle has been most dramatic, with players like Ladi Ajiboye and especially Travian Robertson finally giving us the kind of players at the position that we've always lacked. However, even if the change hasn't been as marked, the real dominance has oftentimes come from the ends, with Devin Taylor, Melvin Ingram, and Jadeveon Clowney giving us some of the league's top stars at the position. With these improvements in tow, we've gone from being one of the league's worst running defenses to one of its better, and our pass rush has been second to none. There's no better formula for defensive success; it all starts up front.
Will 2012 be another case in point? For the pass rush, the answer is a resounding "yes." Taylor is back for his senior season, while Clowney will look to build on his strong finish to 2011 with a more consistent, mature 2012. I don't think it's any stretch to say that both of these two are going to be All-SEC candidates this year, although one would expect that offenses will focus on one or the other, leading to a big year for the one that doesn't get as much attention. That was, in part, what happened last year, when offenses keyed in on Taylor and oftentimes let Ingram run free. This year, I have a feeling Clowney may increasingly be the focal point of opposing blocking schemes. That will free things up for Taylor, and when he reaches his potential, I doubt Clowney will be fully blockable even with focused schemes. We also have good depth at these positions, with either Chaz Sutton or Aldrick Fordham being capable of spelling Taylor and Clowney. Indeed, both Sutton and Fordham would be capable of starting for many teams. I'm personally really looking forward to seeing Fordham at DE instead of DT, which is more in accord with his talents. To sum up, we're set at these positions, and the talent we have at our disposal has been on display all spring, as our pass rush has definitely gotten the better of our offensive line each day in practice.
DT I'm not quite so sure about. I do think that we have a potential All-SEC candidate in Kelcy Quarles, who came along more and more as the season progressed last year. After that, though, there are question marks. Byron Jerideau is currently slated as the starter beside Quarles. Jerideau is a physical specimen and has shown flashes during his time on campus, but he's never quite broken through and nailed down a regular spot in the rotation. Perhaps he's ready to be great this year. He's certainly got the size and physicality to be a good run-stuffer, and he's shown the ability to get to the QB at times. I just feel a little uncertain about him, and I will until I see him perform well down-in, down-out against a good team. Behind these two, we have J.T. Surratt and Gerald Dixon. Both players have potential, but I don't feel confident that either will be ready for a big role next year. Another guy who may get a shot is former top recruit Phillip Dukes, but Dukes has proven to be slow to catch up to the college game (this happens sometimes; remember that Ingram sort of came out of nowhere in 2010), and he currently appears to be less capable than Dixon, who came in less heralded. We'll at the very least really need one of these three players to step up and be able to contribute some significant downs, and we may need more if one of the starters goes down. I have a feeling, though, that if that happens Fordham will be moved back over. None of these are particularly optimal scenarios, but we can hold out hope.
So, in short, we're set at end but have questions at tackle. Don't fret and think 63-17 is around the corner, though. I feel strongly that Quarles and Jerideau are a better pair than some of the lines we had in the Holtz and early Spurrier years. It's just that I'm not so sure that they're as good as the Robertson / Ajiboye and Robertson / Quarles combos we've gotten used to over the past couple of years. But they can be, and that's a start.