Better or worse? Previewing South Carolina's defense in 2021
Editor’s note: SDS’ annual preview of SEC East defenses continues with South Carolina. Coming Saturday: Tennessee.
One of the last red flags of the Will Muschamp era was the Swiss cheese defense displayed during the final 6-game losing streak, which started with losses to LSU, Texas A&M and Ole Miss when the Gamecocks yielded more than 500 yards in each game, and against Ole Miss gave up 708 yards, including 513 passing yards.
The additional problem for new defensive coordinator Clayton White is there was a significant exodus in players from the secondary. South Carolina lost Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu to the NFL. Jammie Robinson transferred to Florida State, and John Dixon transferred to Penn State.
Can South Carolina improve in the secondary, with plenty of new faces while also getting more production and seeing the defensive linemen live up to their potential? Or will this year’s defense take another step back?
Let’s play better or worse.
While the secondary is one of the most glaring holes of any roster around, the front 7 is a case of development issues. The key question: Can this new staff get the 5-star defensive linemen to take the next step and become bona fide stars who strike fear in offenses.
There is plenty of potential, starting with the experience at linebacker, and the talent on the D-line. But on paper, the 2020 roster and depth chart is more talented and deeper than what we know of this group. There’s plenty of time to prove it, but that starts early.
Pressuring the QB: Better
The Gamecocks were tied for last in the SEC in sacks last season with 14.
This year, there are few teams in the country with more talent on the defensive line itself. Zacch Pickens and Jordan Burch are ready to step into the 5-star potential fans and media have expected from them since they committed in high school. Throw in JJ Enagbare, who is drawing first-round mock draft interest for the NFL Draft, and there is plenty to get excited about. The fourth starter is likely to be Jabari Ellis or Tonka Hemingway, who flashed last year as a freshman.
Enagbare last year led the Gamecocks with 6 sacks and 3 forced fumbles in 8 games. In his career, he has 17 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks.
Credit Pickens with appearing in all 22 games in his career, and last year made 35 tackles in 10 games. With 7 starts already, this is the season he needs to step up and draw some national attention.
Don’t forget Georgia State transfer Jordan Strachan, who led the FBS in sacks last season (10.5). He could add depth and an occasional big play.
Run defense: Better
In the new 4-2-5 aligned defense, linebackers have a larger role, and in this case, it appears Sherrod Greene and Mo Kaba to be the main contributors, though they both missed the spring game because of injury. Veterans Damani Staley, the leading returning tackler (51), and Brad Johnson, who has battled injuries, are expected to add depth.
Greene is the veteran presence the Gamecocks need to deliver because he returns with the most starts of anyone in the lineup with 25. He appeared to be on the cusp of a big year after 2019, but the fractured hip put him on the sidelines.
Pass defense: Worse
Senior R.J. Roderick opted out down the stretch last season but is penciled in as starting safety alongside redshirt freshman O’Donnell Fortune. Cam Smith, one of the few familiar faces from last season, is expected to start at cornerback, and the others in the mix are Dominick Hill, and the likes of Joey Hunter or Darius Rush. Georgia Southern transfer David Spaulding is also in the mix.
It’s difficult to see this group producing anywhere near the games that the Gamecocks enjoyed the past 2 seasons when it was one of the best units on the team in upset wins against Auburn in 2020 and Georgia in 2019.
Oft-injured Jaylin Dickerson and Jaylan Foster are a pair of players looking to make an impact after being on campus for several years.
Special teams: Better
Shane Beamer’s background and his hire of Pete Lembo speak of the high value Beamer places on the unit. Remember, during the spring game, Beamer didn’t even reveal the punt unit or formation, a signal that there is more than a wrinkle expected for the season. Make no mistake, if South Carolina is able to break through at all, special teams is one path to do it.
Like Parker White on offense, punter Kai Kroeger returns after he averaged 43 yards per punt last season.
Under a best-case scenario, the defense develops behind the front 7, and a combination of the 5-star defensive linemen produce on schedule, while the injured linebackers also find their stride in the new alignment. However, with the new faces and questions throughout the secondary, there are too many unknowns to expect an improvement from last season.
A look at first-year coaches in South Carolina history reveals that all but Sparky Woods had 5 losses, and 7-5 seems to be the high watermark.
White’s new alignment, and the sheer number of new faces on the back end, could cause some confusion for opponents early on. White’s style is also more aggressive, and that could pay dividends early with turnovers and sack yardage. That’s what the Gamecocks need to bank on in order to develop early momentum. However, the flip side is gambling too much with a young and unproven secondary. That will be a tight rope for White to walk in play-calling.
A 3-2 start — with Eastern Illinois, East Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky and Troy — would at least give a measure of optimism, and it would help turn the page from last year by topping the 2020 season win total.