Clayton White was one of the best coordinators in the SEC last season, and for first-year coordinators who exceeded expectations, the Gamecocks’ defensive coordinator should be at the top of the list.

White’s aggressive style already paid dividends with turnovers last season, and this year there’s plenty of potential to lead the way with sack yardage. Replacing the likes of Kingsley Enagbare and Aaron Sterling up front will not be easy, but the Gamecocks have all the talent they need in that department.

So what’s the encore in 2022? Takeaways were the name of the game last season, as the Gamecocks were a ball-hawking secondary that gave quarterbacks nightmares. The challenge is the schedule, once again. The Gamecocks were 7th in the SEC last year giving up 24 points per game. However, bottling up the offenses from Georgia, Clemson, Texas A&M, Tennessee and even Missouri will be a tall order. All those teams scored at least 30 points against the Gamecocks last season.

So, let’s take a look at some categories and play better or worse for South Carolina in 2022.

Pressuring the QB: Better

South Carolina was 12th in the SEC in sacks last season with 26, or 2 per game on average.

Hello Zacch Pickens and Jordan Burch, now is your time to shine.

Pickens, who has appeared in all 35 games over the past 3 seasons with 20 starts, has all the traits to become an All-SEC player. Pickens in 2021 made 38 tackles, including 5 tackles for a loss and 4 sacks. Burch, a 3rd-year player, has appeared in 21 games over the past 2 seasons with 1 start. Although he hasn’t lived up to the hype of being a hometown 5-star recruit, this is the year to do it.

Sherrod Greene, one of the more veteran linebackers in the SEC, returns from last year’s season-ending injury. Veteran Brad Johnson will contribute, too. What they really need is Mo Kaba and Debo Williams to emerge, however, that’s not automatic. Greene and Johnson have battled injuries, and Kaba and Williams are not exactly proven commodities yet.

Getting younger linebackers more experience, and insulating the defense against injuries will be a priority for White.

Run defense: Same

The Gamecocks allowed 175 yards per game on the ground last season, which was 11th in the SEC.

We’ll know early whether this group will be better or worse than last year. Their first 3 opponents can run at will.

South Carolina opens against Georgia State’s run-heavy attack, which averaged 224 yards rushing per game last season. Shawn Elliott’s bunch piled up 267 yards last year against Auburn and added 172 against North Carolina.

Next, they’ll face Arkansas, which led the SEC in rushing last season, averaging 227 yards per game. Stopping the Hogs’ versatile and deep rushing attack will be a challenge. They face Georgia the following week — again, all within the first 3 weeks of the season.

Kaba has an interesting opportunity here. He’s garnered high respect from coaches since the Will Muschamp era and earned SEC All-Freshman honors from the league’s 14 coaches in 2020. Kaba has appeared in 22 contests over the past 2 seasons. Kaba recorded 25 of his 32 tackles in the final 6 games last season. Foreshadowing? The Gamecocks hope so.

Greene easily will wear the adversity and leadership honor. He will play his 6th year with the Gamecocks, and has battled extensive injuries in recent years. He has recovered from 2 separate season-ending injuries, a fractured hip in 2020 and a broken right ankle last season. It’s difficult to find a more experienced player in the SEC. After all, Greene started multiple games as a freshman in 2017. He has 138 career tackles, and all but 8 were made through his first 3 seasons. Simply put, he’s the heart and soul of the defense, and odds are that if the Gamecocks have another big season, he’ll be right in the middle of it.

Pass defense: Slightly worse (but still good)

Arguably the best unit on the team last season, the Gamecocks led the SEC in pass defense with 180 yards allowed, along with 15 interceptions, which was tied for 2nd. This is a tough level to maintain from last year.

Cam Smith battled a foot injury in August but became a starter, and in 11 games he had 3 interceptions — 2nd on the team behind Foster — and was the 6th-leading tackler with 41. Smith also had a team-high 11 pass breakups and earned 2nd-team All-SEC honors. Smith, even as highly regarded as he is among Gamecocks fans, is fairly underrated across the SEC. After all, the fourth-year player is considered the second-best returning cornerback in college football for 2022, according to Pro Football Focus.

Central Michigan graduate transfer Devonni Reed is already making a mark on the field at safety as the quarterback of the defense. He’s a 4-year starter from the MAC and a valuable addition to the defense. A name to keep an eye on is newcomer 4-star DB Keenan Nelson Jr. out of Philadelphia.

Special teams: Same (which is quite good)

Kai Kroeger last season punted 59 times with a long of 73. He averaged 42.9 yards per punt and placed 22 punts inside the 20. He also tallied 14 punts that went for more than 50 yards. Kroeger is in the mix among the best punters in the SEC. Between Shane Beamer and Pete Lembo, it’s easy to see how special teams will be a key factor in every game, and Kroeger is an experienced punter who can contribute to winning field position.

In the return game, there are plenty of dynamic players who are stars at other positions. That group includes JuJu McDowell, Xavier Legette, MarShawn Lloyd, Lovasea Carroll, Payton Mangrum, Antwane Wells, Josh Vann, Ahmarean Brown and Trey Adkins.

Overall: Better

The defensive line should blossom into its own and live up to the hype, and provided it does, the Gamecocks have a chance at stealing a game against a top-tier SEC opponent. They’ve done it before more than once, and often it’s the defensive line that leads the way.

White not only exceeded expectations, he did it while replacing some of the best talent the Gamecocks have had in the secondary in years. The fact that he replaced the likes of Jaycee Horn, Israel Mukuamu, Jammie Robinson and John Dixon, and delivered one of the best secondaries in the country was very impressive.

Now they’ll need to back that up with elevated expectations. After all, last season the Gamecocks were largely picked to win 2 or 3 games, and not come close to beating the likes of Florida, Auburn, or win a bowl game — much less get to one — by 17 points.

Now they’re likely to be ranked in the preseason, and be a land mine-type of team for the SEC blue-bloods. Watch out for upsets.