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South Carolina football 2017 preview: Can the defense put two-and-two together?

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The defense was great at preventing big plays, but still struggled in the trenches and benefited from some turnovers luck. Can this unit take the next step?

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Clemson Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Monday my co-manager Sydney previewed the offense for our 2017 package, now it’s time to dive into the defense.

During Steve Spurrier’s tenure with the South Carolina Gamecocks, defense became his calling card in a reverse twist from his identity at Florida. From 2005 to 2013 South Carolina routinely put out top-40 defenses, including a four-year run from 2009 to 2012 where the defense was ranked in top-15 in S&P.

The defense peaked in 2012 when it was ranked No. 6, then fell back to 22 in 2013. There’s no shame in being a top-25 defense, but it was following the departure of NFL talents like Jadeveon Clowney and Jimmy Legree the unit took a serious tumble.

In 2014 the defense fell to 77th in defensive S&P and then 95th in 2015. Prior to 2014 the worst defense Spurrier ever had was his first season in 2005 at 38th. Whoever took over the job following SOS’s departure would be tasked with having to rebuild a train wreck defense, so in hindsight perhaps Will Muschamp was the right fit all along.

Last season the South Carolina defense jumped back up to 50th in S&P part in thanks to the schemes implemented by Muschamp and defensie coordinator Travaris Robinson. Here’s how things broke down:

  • South Carolina was excellent at preventing the deep pass. They were 6th in Passing ISOppp defense and 46th in total passing defense S&P. This came without a stellar pass rush either, which is normally a given when talking about top-50 pass defenses.
  • The run defense was average on its best day. Opposing backs ran relatively efficiently (89th in rushing success rate) on the Gamecocks but didn’t always break out the long gains (46th in rushing ISOppp).
  • The defense benefited from turnovers, especially with their backs against the wall. Look no further than the ECU game, where the Pirates turned the ball over three times inside the Gamecock ten.
  • Even saying that, South Carolina wasn’t very good at creating havoc plays (passes defended, sacks, tackles for loss). They were 93rd in the country in overall havoc rate last season.

South Carolina’s defense had its holes last season, but was good enough to pull South Carolina through the first six games of the season when the offense struggled. With some healthy pieces back and a good crop of 2017 recruits, this unit is expected to improve to a top 40 or even 30 level.

Projected Depth Chart

Defensive end: Dante Sawyer and D.J. Wonnum/Keir Thomas and Daniel Fennell

A lot of noise has been made around Wonnum this fall and for good reason. Wonnum had a handful of splash plays last season and is expected to be the Gamecocks’ top pass rusher this season. Sawyer is a seasoned veteran on the line, while Thomas and Fennell look to provide decent depth.

Defensive tackle: Taylor Stallworth and Ulric Jones/Kobe Smith and Javon Kinlaw

The strength of the line lies in the interior with Stallworth and Jones who both tip the scales at 300-plus pounds. Smith looks to follow up a solid freshman season while Kinlaw is a wildcard from the JUCO ranks with his size and stature (6’6’’, 326 lbs).

Linebackers: Bryson Allen-Williams, T.J. Brunson and Skai Moore

This is by far the most solid group of the defense, headlined by two seniors with three years of experience. Brunson will be the question mark along side sure things in BAW and Moore, but don’t foget about JUCO transfer Eldridge Thompson as someone who could throw his name in the mix this season.

Cornerbacks: Jamarcus King and Rashad Fenton/Jamyest Williams and Chris Lammons

King and Fenton have solidified themselves as starters this fall, but both have their flaws as starters. Lammons versatility could see him start at spots this year, while Williams has been working in at nickel at fall camp and could get a shot to prove he was worth the hype during his recruitment.

Safeties: Chris Lammons and D.J. Smith/Steven Montac and Javon Charleston

Smith was a headache in deep coverage last season and needs to put together a breakout season. Lammons might start at safety or corner, leaving Montac and Charleston to potentially fill the roll of strong safety. Look out of JUCO transfer Keisean Nixon to throw his name in the mix too.

Biggest concern: Pass rushing

Darius English finally lived up to his billing last year by recording 13.5 TFL and nine sacks, but the leading returner only has two. South Carolina’s defense can’t take the next step unless Wonnum and Sawyer can provide pressure from the edges. Only then can Robinson and Muschamp open up the defense and start mixing their coverages so opposing quarterbacks don’t always see cover three, off-man looks.


Sunday we asked the GABA community what your biggest concern on offense was, so let's shift gears to the other side of...

Posted by Garnet and Black Attack on Monday, August 28, 2017

Sunday we asked the GABA community what your biggest concern on offense was, so let's shift gears to the other side of...

Posted by Garnet and Black Attack on Monday, August 28, 2017

Sunday we asked the GABA community what your biggest concern on offense was, so let's shift gears to the other side of...

Posted by Garnet and Black Attack on Monday, August 28, 2017

Key returnees and stats

Returning defensive statistics

Name Position Games Tackles TFL Sacks INT PBU FF FR
Name Position Games Tackles TFL Sacks INT PBU FF FR
Skai Moore (2015) LB 12 111 6.5 2 4 4 3 1
DJ Smith FS 13 80 0 0 1 0 0 2
Bryson Allen Williams LB 13 75 8.5 2 2 1 1 1
Jamarcus King CB 13 56 3 0 3 9 1 1
Chris Lammons CB 13 53 4 1 3 6 2 2
Ulric Jones DT 13 42 0 0 0 2 0 0
Taylor Stallworth DT 13 41 3 1 0 3 0 0
Steven Montac SS 11 39 0.5 0 0 3 2 1
Rashad Fenton CB 12 38 1.5 0.5 1 5 1 0
DJ Wonnum DE 13 32 3.5 1.5 0 0 0 0
Dante Sawyer DE 13 32 2.5 0 0 0 0 1
Keir Thomas DE 13 25 4 1 0 2 0 1