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What to Watch for During Spring Practice: Defensive Line

With three key starters gone from 2013, defensive line will be one of the most scrutinized position groups during spring practice.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

For Gamecock fans, it's hard to remember the last time the South Carolina defensive line had so many questions heading into spring practice. During the Spurrier tenure in Columbia, the defensive front has been one of the most consistent areas of the football team, even producing numerous NFL draft picks. Jadeveon Clowney's monstrous frame is now gone, along with the attention he commanded both on and off the field. Kelcy Quarles also declared early for the draft, and his major production will have to be replaced somehow. Fifth-year senior leader Chaz Sutton has departed, and though his 2014 statistics may not have been what Gamecock fans expected, Sutton was always in the right place and rarely missed an assignment. With the exodus of veteran players from the line, Deke Adams will certainly have a lot of coaching to do this spring. Fortunately, the Gamecocks still have several experienced players, not to mention a lot of talented bodies to work with.

Fifth-year senior J.T. Surratt will be counted on to lead the defensive line heading into the spring. The lone returning starter along the line has made 14 career starts, including every game in 2013. Junior Gerald Dixon Jr. has played solidly behind Surratt, so he doesn't have much to prove this spring. Gamecock fans can expect steady contributions from both Surratt and Dixon Jr. in 2014. The other tackle spot will be much more interesting to watch play out. Former four-star recruit Phillip Dukes is currently listed as the probable starter opposite Surratt. Replacing the role vacated by Kelcy Quarles will be no easy task for the junior Dukes, especially considering the 6'3 322 pound big man will face heavy competition from talented sophomore Kelsey Griffin and JUCO transfer Abu Lamin. Griffin was highly touted out of Buford, GA and played sparingly in 2013. Unfortunately, he was unable to be redshirted, but was impressive whenever he stepped on the field. Newcomer Abu Lamin had offers from other major SEC players, and Deke Adams and Lorenzo Ward are hoping that Lamin can become a run-stopper inside for the Gamecocks. At 6'4 295 pounds, Lamin is big enough to potentially slide inside as a nose tackle, if Lorenzo Ward in fact decides to implement some of the 3-4 defense he's mentioned using. This spring will be huge to see whether or not Griffin or Lamin can push for a starting role.

The biggest question facing the defensive line this spring is the end position. Both starters from last year are gone, and the pressure will be on to replace Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton. Clowney's high school teammate Gerald Dixon is listed as the starter at one end, while Darius English is the probable starter on the other side. It's been well documented that English needed to add weight to his frail 6'6 frame. The sophomore is currently listed at 235 pounds on the spring depth chart, but strength-and-conditioning coach Joe Connolly recently said English was up to 244 pounds. How English plays this spring and how much weight he continues to gain this summer will be of major importance in determining how much of a factor he can be this fall. Known as a pass rusher, English will have to prove that he can help in the run game if he hopes to make an impact on the field.

Gamecock fans will also want to pay close attention to the players behind Dixon and English. There are five players listed behind the two starters who all will be pushing for playing time this fall. Cedrick Cooper will be one to watch this spring, as he was converted to defensive end towards the end of 2013. At 6'3 226 pounds, Cooper is one of the best pure athletes on the team and it was reported that he ran a 4.4 40 yard dash during winter workouts. If he is able to finally stay healthy in 2014, Cooper could surprise at the end spot. Lorenzo Ward has said he hoped Cooper could be in the mold of Missouri's smaller, quick ends that wreaked havoc on the SEC last year. It will be a make or break year for Mason Harris, who is entering his junior year. At 6'3 231 pounds Harris has added some weight and shown flashes of being a good pass rusher. Last season he played in a backup role, but this spring will go a long way in determining how much he can help the defense. Harris has the talent to be a solid player in 2014, but must prove to the coaching staff he can be reliable.

Redshirt freshmen Devin Washington, David Johnson, and Gerald Turner will also battle Harris and Cooper for a backup role. Washington is the tallest at 6'3 and was out all of last season due to concussion issues. He is a player that may still need some development, but will get plenty of reps this spring to help improve. The coaching staff really likes David Johnson, and at 6'1 280 pounds, Johnson could grow into a tackle. For now, he will serve as a physical presence on the outside and could see some playing time if he impresses in the spring. Turner will also look to showcase his abilities, and at 6'2 251 pounds, he is also a more physical end.

With the position having as many question marks this spring as it does, it wouldn't be surprising to see any of these players earn time this fall. Gamecock fans should hope that someone, if not multiple playmakers, can emerge this spring.