Even with new faces, South Carolina's defense could be SEC's most underrated
Linebacker was supposed to be an area of weakness last season for South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney-led defense, an inexperienced group led by newcomers and late-bloomers.
By the end of a third consecutive 11-win campaign however, two of the Gamecocks’ top three tacklers were linebackers while a third, spur Sharrod Golightly, led the team in fumble recoveries and all non-defensive linemen in tackles for loss.
Skai Moore, a rangy linebacker who inspired the Gamecocks with a team-leading four interceptions and 56 tackles as a freshman, is a focal point on a new-look defense faced with the arduous task of replacing five starters.
“We’re all our brother’s keeper and we all have each other’s backs,” Moore said after Tuesday’s first day in pads. “We know the talent that we have in our linebacker room and we’re just confident about each other playing together.”
Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward expressed after last week’s first fall practice that “there’s a little something different” about this year’s team, acknowledging his players’ business-like approach and togetherness.
The Gamecocks, preseason Eastern Division favorites, are confident they’ll be just as good defensively as they were last season, but that same level of conviction hasn’t been expressed nationally.
Steve Spurrier’s recently voiced his displeasure with Moore not being voted preseason All-SEC, but the Cooper City, Fla., native says isn’t bothered by the lack of notoriety. He’s using it as motivation as the leader of a defense many are expecting to take a step back thanks to a youth-laden secondary and the loss of two All-Americans up front.
South Carolina’s linebacking corps, its strongest and most experienced level on defense, boasts an abundance of talent for the first time in years. The rotation features Moore, Golightly, Kaiwan Lewis, Marcquis Roberts and Jonathan Walton and will lead by example.
“We know the defense really looks to us to put them in the right position,” Moore said. “They (expect us) to have their back and make plays when something happens.”
Up front, the Gamecocks don’t anticipate a drop in production.
With 85 percent of the defensive playbook already installed, Ward said Tuesday he was impressed with the competition in the trenches during the “Oklahoma” drill and praised his team’s depth along the defensive line.
Tackle J.T. Surratt’s one of the top returning players and the coaching staff’s expecting a breakout season from Darius English who added 20 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-7, 250-pound frame during the offseason.
“We feel like we have good football players and we want to make sure we practice toughness,” Ward said. “I thought the defensive line really came off the ball and showed that we can win our gap and beat the main in front of us. We normally don’t do the Oklahoma drill in the fall camp, but coach (Spurrier) wanted us to get a little tougher. So we did it today and it was a good drill.”
Early in camp, Ward and secondary coach Grady Brown surprisingly haven’t seemed worried about the loss of veteran corners Jimmy Legree and Victor Hampton at the back end. Early-impact true freshmen Chris Lammons, Wesley Green and Al Harris Jr. have picked up their responsibilities quickly in coverage, which could allow multi-year starter and senior Brison Williams to move back to his familiar safety spot by the opener against Texas A&M after working at corner during the spring and first few fall practices.
“It didn’t take them long to show that they can play,” Spurrier said.
If Lammons, Green or Harris plays the first snap on defense against the Aggies, they’ll become the Gamecocks’ first true freshman starting corner since Stephon Gilmore in 2009.
Added Brown: “Whoever is playing the best, those are the guys that will start the game. Oftentimes it’s not about who starts, but who finishes the game; who makes the tackles during the game. Starting is just one play, so it’s about who is making the plays to help us play well on defense to help us win the ball game.”
While most are quick to discredit South Carolina’s defense as a strength following Clowney’s departure, the Gamecocks are confident this year’s group could be even better.