With a hat tip to the great Bill C. for this post idea, let's talk about where this year's defensive class fits into our 2014 plans. In short, Carolina shored up on highly rated prospects where needed, although academic concerns among our defensive end recruits may eventually put a damper on the enthusiasm.
South Carolina heads into 2014 with the most uncertainty at defensive end since 2009, the year Devin Taylor was a true freshman. Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton will be gone. Strong-side end and stalwart run-stopper Gerald Dixon returns after a promising 2013 campaign and is the favorite to hold down one side of the line. However, Darius English is the only other returner who has had significant playing time, and his inability to put on weight so far makes it unclear whether he'll ever be useful as more than a situational pass rusher.
The good news is that Carolina nabbed commitments from three defensive ends, including two four-star prospects. Those three players are Dante Sawyer, Dexter Wideman, and Jhaustin Thomas. Sawyer and Wideman were among the nation's best prospects at their position, while Thomas was a standout performer in the junior-college ranks after failing to qualify academically at Carolina out of high school. These players are all needed to come in and compete for playing time right away. Sawyer and Wideman are players who could be four-year starters given the depth-chart situation they're walking into, while Thomas has the potential to give Dixon a run for his money on the strong side.
The bad news here is that Sawyer and Wideman both have work to do to qualify academically. It's extremely important that at least one of them makes it in. Both might be too much to ask for.
The Gamecocks lost one of their best players in DT Kelcy Quarles, but Carolina returns a solid depth chart at tackle. J.T. Surratt will start at one tackle position after good sophomore and junior campaigns. Gerald Dixon, Jr. and Phillip Dukes also have a decent amount of experience, and Kelsey Griffin was highly rated out of high school. Someone should emerge out of that group as a solid partner for Surratt, with depth to spare.
Still, particularly considering that it's considered a developmental position given the physical rigors of playing on the interior in the SEC, it's always good to bring in a tackle or two per class. Carolina did that via Blake McClain and Abu Lamin. McClain likely needs some time in Carolina's S&C program before he'll be ready to contribute, but Lamin comes from a JUCO program and is more physically mature. As an early enrollee, Lamin will also have the opportunity to begin acclimating himself this spring. Carolina doesn't absolutely need him to contribute, but the potential for playing time is there if he's as good as advertised.
Linebacker was the big position of need heading into 2013. Carolina graduated its entire two-deep after 2012 and relied on a group of RS and true freshmen at MIKE and WILL and an unheralded RS junior at spur throughout the 2013 campaign. While there were growing pains, the unit improved over the course of the season and will be considered a position of strength heading into 2014.
Given the crowded depth chart, Carolina only took one linebacker in this class, Bryson Allen-Williams. (Joe Blue is listed as an ILB but was recruited to play fullback.) BAW doesn't have to be a star right away, but as the jewel of this class, he may be hard to keep off the field. It's going to take a strong showing to supplant 2013 frosh star Skai Moore at WILL, but I wouldn't be surprised to see BAW take the second spot on the depth chart quickly. I'm also wondering if the coaching staff considers putting BAW on the line in the rabbit package. BAW played end a lot in high school and has the look of an Eric Norwood-like tweener who can make plays from either OLB or DE.
As with linebacker, safety is another position where Carolina had some question marks heading into 2013 but looks more solid looking ahead to 2014. The Gamecocks return all four players on the two-deep from last season. There's no established star power, but Brison Williams has been a consistently reliable player, and Chaz Elder showed a lot of potential in his RS frosh season last year. T.J. Gurley showed a lot of potential in 2012 but struggled coming back from injury last year. He should be readier to go in 2014. J.J. Marcus has a lot of the athletic qualities you want at his position and could be solid if he cuts down on mental mistakes.
The Gamecocks still, though, picked up a couple of good prospects at safety in D.J. Smith and Darin Smalls. Neither player is likely to be pressed into service too quickly, but with Williams and Marcus graduating next season, it was important to begin rebuilding the depth chart.
Along with defensive end, this was the other immediate position of need where new recruits might be expected to play a significant role in 2014. Jimmy Legree and Victor Hampton will both be gone after having gotten the lion's share of snaps the past two seasons. Last year's third corner, Ahmad Christian, is also gone. That leaves Rico McWilliams as the only player returning who has had gotten any considerable playing time. Ali Groves and Ronnie Martin are other players who may be capable of being reliable.
Fortunately, Carolina closed on an excellent cornerback class comprised of Wesley Green, Chris Lammons, and Al Harris, Jr. Green should step onto campus as the best cover corner we have, and Lammons and Harris also have excellent upside. Expect Green to start on one side of the field. McWilliams will likely start on the other, but don't be surprised if Lammons or Harris push for playing time, too.
- South Carolina ranked 4th in early 2014 projections
- National Signing Day 2014 results: South Carolina Recruiting Class Superlatives
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- Gamecock Baseball TV Schedule: SEC releases TV schedule for 2014 season
- The South Carolina Recruiting Constellation