Now is the time for South Carolina's 5-star defensive duo to look the part
Sometime before this quarantine began, I’d like to think that Will Muschamp sat down with Zacch Pickens and Jordan Burch and delivered a simple message.
“Your time is now.”
Never mind the fact that Pickens is entering his sophomore season and Burch didn’t even enroll until last month. Youth is not an excuse for the former 5-star recruits. It can’t be. The sense of urgency for Pickens and Burch to deliver is great for Will Muschamp, who once again is facing a daunting schedule and an uncertain future.
That’s not an ideal combination. Pickens and Burch, however, can be the ideal combination that Muschamp needs to build his defense of the future. Or rather, his defense of the present.
If that sounds like a lot for a couple of guys who have yet to register a single tackle for loss at the collegiate level, well, it’s because it is. But at the same time, isn’t that why Pickens and Burch went to South Carolina in the first place? Once you sift through all the “it just felt like home” or “the coaching staff treated me like family” clichés, how could that not be at least partially why Pickens and Burch went to South Carolina?
(Now is the part where you remind me that Burch playing high school football with Muschamp’s son was the No. 1 reason he ended up in Columbia.)
Now more than ever, Muschamp needs to find answers in the front 7. Javon Kinlaw was the Gamecocks’ best defensive lineman since Jadeveon Clowney. Shoot, you could argue he was South Carolina’s best defensive player since Clowney. That’s the guy who Pickens is being compared to. Kinlaw, that is.
Pickens didn’t necessarily set the world on fire backing up Kinlaw and Kobe Smith, who also exhausted his eligibility, though that’s somewhat expected for a freshman interior defensive lineman in the SEC. At the same time, Pickens’ 16 tackles earned him SEC All-Freshman honors. Muschamp addressed Pickens’ development and actually compared it to where Kinlaw was at once upon a time (via 247sports):
“I always say the closer your position moves to the ball, the harder it is to play as a young player, because the game is much faster,” Muschamp said. “It’s much bigger, it’s much more complex than what you’ve ever been used to playing in high school. Javon was nowhere near the player his first year as he was his last year, I mean, not even comparable. So we expect Zacch to continue to take the right steps forward to be the type player we feel like he can be and that he wants to be.”
Consider that code for “SEC offensive linemen are a different beast than what Pickens saw playing high school football in South Carolina, and he’ll be ready to take off in a full-time role with us once he makes that adjustment.”
That’s what Muschamp expects. By the way, coaches rarely compare freshmen to 1st-round picks. That’s a unique talent. That says more than Pickens showing up on a list of breakout candidates, which is where you’ll likely see him because that’s par for the course for 5-star recruits in Year 2.
Pickens will be relied on in a different way than Burch. For Pickens, he’ll be tasked with improving the SEC’s No. 12 run defense and getting into the face of quarterbacks to help what should be a deep South Carolina secondary.
Burch might only be used in more of a rotational role until he gets the hang of it, but Muschamp will still want to see that rare athleticism on display. Whether that’s starting him in more of the BUCK linebacker role or trying him in a 3-point stance on the defensive line, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Muschamp move him around depending on where he shows promise. Burch has that type of versatility. That’s why he was the No. 8 recruit in the 2020 class (Pickens was the No. 8 recruit in the 2019 class).
Like with Pickens, the learning curve figures to be there in Year 1 for Burch. He’ll have plenty of games in which he’s invisible and the hype train will slow down a bit. But if that comes with a handful of game-changing plays over the course of the season, that’ll be a major boost for Muschamp’s defense.
This is the first time he’s had multiple 5-star defenders since he arrived at South Carolina. Check that. This is the first time that Muschamp had multiple 5-star players since he arrived at South Carolina.
Dante Fowler was part of that last group of 5-stars that Muschamp had when he was at Florida. It’s interesting because Fowler, of course, thrived in that BUCK role en route to becoming the No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. What did Fowler do his freshman season, you ask? He had 30 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and very much looked the part of “5-star recruit.”
That’s the goal for someone like Burch. Even though the continued comparison is inevitable, it’s probably not fair to expect him to play like Clowney did as a freshman when he recorded a ridiculous 12 tackles for loss, 8 sacks and 5 (!) forced fumbles. Clowney played in a completely different system, too.
In Muschamp’s ideal world, his 2020 defense will feature the second coming of Fowler and Kinlaw. This pivotal season for Muschamp seems like the perfect time to show the powers that be a glimpse into the future of South Carolina’s defense. Burch and Pickens are key pieces related to Muschamp’s future.
Granted, actually finding the right quarterback-coordinator combination is pretty massive, too. Pickens and Burch can take the league by storm, but if the offense continues to be one of the SEC’s worst, that could be all she wrote for Muschamp at South Carolina. Still, though. The original point remains.
One can only assume that Muschamp has been repeating a mantra to himself and anyone who will listen throughout this weird offseason — the time is now for Pickens and Burch to turn hype into hope.