5 things that will define South Carolina's defense in 2021
Welcome to the SEC, Clayton White. You’re tasked with turning around a historically bad defense that was at or near the bottom in several major categories.
The Gamecocks ranked 11th in the SEC in yards per play allowed (6.56) and were 12th in scoring (36 points per game, including 5 games where they surrendered at least 40 points).
With several players fighting to stay healthy for the first time, a new defensive alignment and plenty of questions and concerns on the back end, the defense can do nothing but improve in a lot of areas.
Here are 5 things that will define South Carolina defensively in 2021:
1. Pass rush
Kingsley Enagbare quietly had a strong season with 6 sacks in 8 games. Add the increasingly veteran presence of Jordan Burch, Aaron Sterling, Tonka Hemingway and Jordan Strachan and Co., and this is a growth stock kind of unit because as a whole, the pass rush was poor last season.
Next to the offensive line, this group may have the best upside because of a combination of veteran experience and talent. Consider Enagbare next to the spring performance of Tyreek Johnson, who’s been limited by injuries for most of his 3-year career but had 2 tackles and a QB pressure in the spring game. It’s difficult to have any kind of success in the SEC without a consistent pass rush, and that’s especially the case at South Carolina. This unit has arguably the most talent on the roster, and it needs to produce.
2. Secondary quandary
White likes to deploy a 4-2-5 alignment, but not only do the Gamecocks not have a 2-deep on the back end, they might need to hand out “Hello, my name is” name tags for most of the cornerbacks and safeties. Since the running back position is pretty well stocked, look for a position switch to bolster some of the numbers for White’s secondary.
The spring game suggested that the starting lineup appears to be Cam Smith and Dominick Hill at cornerback and Jaylan Foster and O’Donnell Fortune at safety, and Georgia Southern transfer David Spaulding at nickel.
With veteran QBs at Georgia, Florida and Missouri, and upgraded offensive playbooks at Kentucky and Tennessee, this group will be tested within the division.
3. Replacing Ernest Jones
Sherrod Greene and Mo Kaba are the likely successors to Jones, the leading tackler in 2020, though they each missed the spring game with minor injuries. Greene missed almost the entire season in 2020 with a fractured hip, but Kaba made the All-SEC Freshman team as named by the Associated Press.
The position should be in capable hands with Greene, who has played in 36 games with 25 starts. Brad Johnson is another possibility, a senior who has not contributed much in his career after primarily playing at Buck and Sam. The interesting wrinkle to the White defense is these linebackers won’t have to make the calls to align the defense, and therefore are freer to make plays. A dark horse candidate to make a splash is Delaware transfer Debo Williams.
4. Oft-injured contributors
Safety Jaylin Dickerson may be the poster child of this group, but there are several candidates for this category. Dickerson has shown promise, including in the spring game in 2017, but he missed the 2017 season with a shoulder injury and 2019 because of a hip injury. He has still not started a game, but there’s plenty of opportunity this season.
Another player to watch is DL Alex Huntley, who missed most of last season with an ankle injury. Johnson is another candidate for an injured player to have a breakout season. He’s the only returning permanent team captain from 2020 and has dealt with multiple injuries the last 2 seasons.
5. R.J. Roderick’s contribution
One of Shane Beamer’s biggest roster additions was convincing Roderick, who left the team after Will Muschamp was fired, to return.
Roderick, a safety, has drawn criticism for his blown coverages, but with a thin, inexperienced depth chart, Roderick has plenty of experience, appearing in 31 games over 3 seasons, including 22 starts. Still trying to shake off a hip injury, he left the spring game on crutches. If there were an SEC Storied-like redemption story, this is it.
MORE GAMECOCKS: 5 things that will define South Carolina’s offense in 2021