Better or worse? Previewing South Carolina’s defense in 2020
Editor’s note: This is the 5th in a series previewing every SEC East team’s defense. Next: Tennessee.
If it’s not already, South Carolina is beginning to become known as DLU, as the Gamecocks lost a tremendous talent in first-team All-American defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, but now have 2 former 5-star recruits on the line in Jordan Burch and Zacch Pickens, who has a year of experience now. All in the shadow of Jadeveon Clowney.
Last season, the defense held its opponents to 20 points or fewer in 5 games.
Of all the turnover on Will Muschamp’s coaching staff, defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson has been one of the most stable and consistent. He also coaches the defensive backs, a unit largely credited with helping deliver the Georgia upset.
While this unit has underwhelmed in recent years, the 2020 version again has promise at all 3 levels, from the highly-regarded — though young — defensive line, to a veteran linebacker in Ernest Jones, to the talented cornerback duo of Israel Mukuamu and Jaycee Horn.
Key departures: DLs Javon Kinlaw, Kobe Smith and D.J. Wonnum; LB T.J. Brunson; DB J.T. Ibe
Key returnees: LB Ernest Jones; DL Zacch Pickens, Aaron Sterling, Kingsley Enagbare, Sherrod Greene; DBs Jaycee Horn, Israel Mukuamu, R.J. Roderick, Jammie Robinson
Pressuring QB: Worse
This might be a growth stock for 2021 for Burch and Pickens to take over, but it’s difficult to imagine even 5-stars taking over the defensive line this early in their careers. Defensive line was one of a couple positions to see a dramatic departure in talent. Javon Kinlaw, Kobe Smith and D.J. Wonnum will be difficult to replace, and that’s why Aaron Sterling needs to emerge.
The 3 departures produced a combined 11 of South Carolina’s 24 sacks last season. Sterling has a chance to be at his best after he bounced back from an injury-shortened 2018 season last year. Sterling in 2019 had 6 sacks and showed versatility inside as a tackle on pass-rush situations. Sterling will understandably see more attention from offensive lines as they won’t have Kinlaw and Wonnum to worry about. Sterling has been a bit underrated in his career, but he’s largely consistent when healthy. If he has 6 more sacks as a senior, he would have 15 for his career, which would make him tied for 9th in school history.
Run defense: Better
LB Ernest Jones led South Carolina with 97 tackles, which was 5th in the SEC. He lived up to the high expectations he had coming into the 2019 season. He had double-digit tackles in most of South Carolina’s toughest games, including against North Carolina, Georgia, Appalachian State and Texas A&M. Jones’ veteran presence offers stability up the middle as the Gamecocks have increasing youth on the defensive line and some turnover at safety.
Sherrod Greene totaled 6.5 tackles for a loss and most of them, 6.0, were making plays against rushers as he only had a half-sack. Add in Kingsley Enagbare: 7 of his 27 tackles were for loss. Oft-injured Brad Johnson is in line to be a leader from the Buck position as injuries have largely kept him for reaching his potential.
Pass defense: Better
The talkative and talented duo of Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu could solidify themselves one of the most dynamic defensive tandems in the league, while R.J. Roderick and Jammie Robinson offer some depth and limited experience in pure passing downs and on the back line.
Mukuamu, a 6-4, 205-pounder, was named second-team All-SEC honors last season after he had 59 tackles with 4 interceptions and 9 pass breakups. He’s largely known for the best game of his career in the double-overtime upset win at Georgia when he had 3 interceptions, including a 53-yard pick-6.
Horn is looking to close the gap on his NFL dreams with a big season to boost his résumé. With those NFL dreams, Horn a 6-1, 200-pound junior, still is looking for his first career interception. He had 40 tackles and tied for the team-high with 9 pass breakups a year ago. Horn is the son of former NFL wide receiver Joe Horn and might go pro after 2020.
Safety has been a position of concern for a while. Between the departure of Jamyest Williams, after his injury troubles, and J.T. Ibe, R.J. Roderick and Jammie Robinson finding their sea legs, there have been some holes to fill. Roderick, for one, has had busted coverages in recent years, and one option that’s been floated is moving Mukuamu to safety, and insert either Cam Smith or John Dixon at cornerback.
Special teams: Worse
Kai Kroeger was considered one of the top punter recruits in the country out of Illinois. But he has big shoes to fill to replace Joseph Charlton. Charlton was one of the best punters in the SEC last season, as he ranked 2nd to Kentucky’s Max Duffy (48.12) with a 47.71 average.
A new era pic.twitter.com/cx255apMvM
— Gamecock Specialists (@sc_specialists) June 22, 2020
USC lost the NFL-bound Kinlaw up front but can turn to Keir Thomas, a senior who missed nearly all of last year with an injury. Pickens wasn’t heard from much last year but could enjoy a tremendous upswing this year. Muschamp got one of the biggest recruits in his tenure with Burch, and along with Aaron Sterling (6 sacks among 10 tackles for a loss) the defensive line is in great shape moving forward.
Part of the staff overhaul included SEC veterans Tracy Rocker and Rod Wilson, which offers a positive change of scenery for the overall unit.
The unit has a positive outlook and was objectively pretty good last season even though the numbers might not suggest that. The offense put the defense in several bad positions, and the Gamecocks still finished 9th in total yards surrendered. For example, the defense was among just 4 teams in the SEC to give up fewer than 10 rushing touchdowns.
One noticeable stat that Robinson has already discussed is turnover margin. The Gamecocks the past 2 seasons forced just 17 and 16 turnovers. But the previous 2 seasons, they collected 28 and 27 in 2017 and 2016.
Overall, Robinson’s unit returns multiple players at each position group, and many of them have shown signs of talent. Now consistency is coming into focus, as it is across the program.