South Carolina football: Not quite like the Clowney days, but Gamecocks' pass rush finally putting heat on QBs
One area coach Will Muschamp said South Carolina needed to show improvement was along the defensive line. In fact, in general, he said at SEC Media Days that, “we flat-out struggled. We weren’t very good. Call it like it is.”
That’s when he called out experienced players, like Javon Kinlaw, Keir Thomas, Kobe Smith, Danny Fennell and D.J. Wonnum.
“Those are five guys that are good football players that have played quality for us,” Muschamp said. “We need to have those type of seniors in order for us to have the defense we need to have. We need to improve tremendously.”
Through 5 games, South Carolina has answered the call and then some.
Kinlaw is tied for the SEC lead in sacks with 4, and Wonnum and Aaron Sterling each have 3, which is tied for 4th. Wonnum against Kentucky recorded his first 3-sack game. His previous high was 2, which happened twice, in wins against Tennessee (2017 and 2018). The last Gamecock to record 3 sacks in a game was Darius English at Kentucky in 2016. That’s a far cry from where the Gamecocks have been in recent years.
As a team, South Carolina has finished 9th, 11th, 11th, 11th, 14th and 7th in the SEC in sacks since 2013. Last year, Kinlaw led the team but was 22nd in the league with 4.5, and 2 years ago, Wonnum had 6 sacks, which was good for 14th in the SEC but also led the team.
This year? The Gamecocks already have 12 sacks and are on pace for their best season since 2012, when they led the SEC with 43. They haven’t had more than 26 in a season since then.
This improvement was first noticed against Missouri, but it continued against Kentucky.
“I thought we won on the line of scrimmage,” Muschamp told reporters. “We did a nice job in our run sets. We had a good plan coming in of some of the things they did. I told (defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson), ‘I know we’re not getting any movement. Just keep banging in there and tackle well.’ We continue to improve. We improved a lot last week, but it didn’t show numbers-wise as far as the score was concerned because we played too many snaps. But we’ve made some improvements.”
LB Ernest Jones, another pleasant surprise who had an interception against Kentucky, said the defensive pressure has a trickle down effect.
“They are a dominant duo right there,” he said of Wonnum and Kinlaw. “When they are able to affect the quarterback and keep the O-lineman from getting to me, T.J. (Brunson) and Sherrod (Greene), it makes our job easier. They’re making a lot of plays … They’ve been playing their hearts out, playing their butts (off) the past few weeks. It felt good to reward them with a win and just make a lot of plays for them.”
The Gamecocks have a tall order ahead of them when they return to action on Oct. 12 at Georgia. The Bulldogs have only allowed 1 sack this season, and have one of the largest offensive lines in the country. The SEC Network has noted that the average NFL line is 314.8 pounds, and Georgia’s starting offensive line averages 328.6 pounds.
The next few opponents, Florida, Tennessee and Vanderbilt are all middle of the pack in the SEC in sacks allowed and are near the bottom in rushing offense.
Florida, for example, was called out last week by coach Dan Mullen for a poor performance along the offensive line against Towson with Auburn’s vaunted defensive line looming. The Gamecocks should have quite a blueprint for the Gators as they meet Florida after the Gators play Auburn and LSU in consecutive weeks.
For an optimistic perspective, South Carolina last season had 2 sacks each against Florida, Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
The Gamecocks don’t face a true mobile quarterback in SEC play until Kellen Mond of Texas A&M on Nov. 16. But last year, they held him to 25 rushing yards, which was his eighth-lowest rushing performance of 2018.