2011 South Carolina Preview – Defense
South Carolina CB Stephon Gilmore
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - South Carolina Gamecock Defense
Preview 2011 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: Last year's defense had the potential to be the best yet in the Steve Spurrier era of strong defenses, and it came through with a phenomenal season against the run and rushing the passer. However, the secondary struggled too much and was a bit too inconsistent. This year's defense should be devastating up front with, arguably, the nation's best rotation of defensive ends led by underappreciated star Devin Taylor and with superstar recruit Jadeveon Clowney coming in. The linebacking corps might not be dynamic, but it's full of veterans and should be rock solid against the run. The big key will be the secondary that was full of talent and experience last year, but struggled against efficient passers. This year's group of defensive backs is potentially great, led by do-it-all corner Stephon Gilmore, but there needs to be far more production.
Tackles: Stephon Gilmore, 79
Sacks: Melvin Ingram, 9
Interceptions: Stephon Gilmore, 3
Star of the defense: Junior CB Stephon Gilmore
Player who has to step up and be a star: Senior CB Akeem Auguste
Unsung star on the rise: Senior DT Travian Robertson
Best pro prospect: Freshman DE Jadeveon Clowney
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Gilmore, 2) DE Devin Taylor, 3) DE Melvin Ingram
Strength of the defense: Defensive Ends, Pass Rush
Weakness of the defense: Lock-Down Corner, Linebacker Health
State of the Unit: The defensive front was terrific last year at getting to the quarterback helping the team finish seventh in the nation, and first in the SEC, in sacks with a school-record 41. With a good blend of talented veterans and bright new stars, the line should be a terror in the backfield yet again. At this point, the USC line reloads in a hurry, and it did so with flair with the latest recruiting class.
HE is going to be a story all season long in one way or another. HE, of course, is Jadeveon Clowney, the nation's No. 1 recruit and the crown jewel of an already strong 2011 South Carolina haul. Saddled with all the pressure in the world as a can't-miss, sure-thing star, the 6-5, 235-pound speed rusher could be the team's most dangerous defender from the moment he sets foot on campus. However, while the hype will be off the charts, he's still going to need time to fill out his frame with room to put on at least 20 pounds of good muscle. While he might not be the No. 1 end right away, he could find a specialist role as a pass rusher extraordinaire in the rotation. Considering the hullaballoo, anything less than a good true freshman season will be considered a disappointment.
With all the attention paid to the addition of Clowney, it'll be easy to overlook 6-7, 248-pound junior Devin Taylor, a power forward who just so happens to be a phenomenal defensive end. With a great first step and terrific closing skills, he became one of the SEC's newest superstars with 7.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss, along with 46 tackles. Not just a pass rushing specialist, he did a little bit of everything up front including eight broken up passes, but while he's tough to throw over and he's good against the run, he's a pass rushing terror who's always in the backfield and always disrupting things.
With Clowney and Taylor getting any and all hype, completely lost in the limelight will be Melvin Ingram, a 6-2, 271-pound run stopper who happens to be great at getting to the quarterback. While he'd be a perfect 3-4 end, he's just fine as a pass rushing specialist coming in from the outside making a team-leading nine sacks with 11 tackles for loss. He can rotate in at tackle if needed and can be decent against the run making 28 stops, but he's mostly going to work in combination with the other top prospects at end.
The tackle situation is solid thanks to the return of Travian Robertson, an insanely strong rock against the run who has just enough quickness to be a decent pass rusher. After suffering a bad knee injury in 2009, he came back to be the anchor up front with 52 tackles with four sacks and ten tackles for loss. Now that he's a year removed from his injury, he could be one of the SEC players who goes from great to special. Operating next to Robertson will be Aldrick Fordham, a 6-4, 273-pound versatile defender who'll get a long look at Ladi Ajiboye's spot inside, but will move to end from time to time. After bulking up over the last year, the smart, tough junior is ready to make a bigger impact coming off a ten tackle season.
Pushing for time in the tackle rotation, and possibly starting if Fordham moves to the outside, is Kelcy Quarles, an intriguing 6-3, 271-pound prospect who signed with USC last year but is first eligible this season. He spent last year at Fork Union Military Academy and returns as a big-time prospect with a limitless upside. He's a smallish tackle, but he's lightning quick, while junior Byron Jerideau is a pure run plugger for the inside. The 6-0, 315-pounder is a bowling ball, and while he has to fight to keep his weight in check, he brings the bulk to an otherwise quick defensive interior.
Trying to find time on the outside will be sophomore Chaz Sutton, one of the team's top recruits of a few years ago with raw speed and 6-4, 245-pound size. A pass rusher with excellent skills, he has to stay healthy after having hamstring problems early on, and he has to be a factor when he gets in the game after making five tackles and a sack in a limited opportunity. Also pushing for time will be 6-5, 242-pound senior Byron McKnight, a pure fill-in, emergency end who has been around long enough to step in and see a little time on the outside if needed.
Watch Out For … Taylor to still be the team's best defensive end. Clowney is going to be the star of the show and he's going to be special, but for this year, Taylor is going to be the team's best all-around defensive end. He might not lead the team in sacks, but he'll be an all-star again.
Strength: The defensive end rotation. South Carolina was terrific at getting into the backfield throughout last year, and now the pressure should be ramped up big-time with Clowney coming in. Things were already solid with Taylor and Ingram, but now the Gamecocks should be terrific.
Weakness: Sure-thing backup defensive tackles. Jerideau and Quarles should be solid, and 6-3, 310-pound junior Kenny Davis has the body to end up being a factor, but it might take a little bit to get the rotation down on the inside. The ends will be terrific and the starting tackles should be great, more depth would be nice.
Outlook: The line was very talented last year, but it was very young. It grew up in a hurry and was among the best in the nation at getting into the backfield, and it should be even stronger and more dangerous with Clowney entering the picture. Consider it a major disappointment if this group doesn't help USC finish in the top ten in sacks and top 15 in tackles for loss, but the key will be if the tackles hold up. The line was great against the run last year, and it should be more than fine again.
Unit Rating: 9
State of the Unit: While the loss of starting linebackers Josh Dickerson and Tony Straughter might seem to leave a gaping hole, the corps should be better. The key will be to keep everyone healthy and hope for all the veterans to play as well as expected, and the hope will be for the defensive line to be so good that the linebackers don't have to do much more than clean up a few messes.
The biggest bonus will be getting back Shaq Wilson after missing almost all of last year with a hamstring problem. The 5-11, 233-pound junior bulked up a bit after the time off and now should be stronger against the run to handle the workload in the middle. He led the team with 85 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss last year, and he has the defensive back-like speed to be sent into the backfield more often to be a disruptive force. Healthy again, he'll be one of the team's leading tacklers and he should be in line for all-star honors.
Also returning from injury is Rodney Paulk, a 6-0, 229-pound hitter who's getting a sixth year of eligibility after suffering a variety of injuries over his career. Able to play in the middle, he'll work on the weakside if he can stay healthy. His biggest problem has been with his knees, suffering a torn right ACL after hurting his left knee three years ago. He played in every game last year making 32 tackles with 2.5 sacks and four tackles for loss, but he wasn't quite the same. Now he's expected to be close to healthy now that he's a few years removed from his knee issues, and while he might not have the same range he showed as a 64-tackle freshman, he should fill up the stat-sheet.
Back at the hybrid Spur position is Antonio Allen, a 6-0, 208-pound senior who finished second on the team with 70 tackles with 2.5 sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss, seven quarterback hurries, and four broken up passes. Part safety and part linebacker, Allen is built for the spot after coming to USC as a strong safety. He's a sure-thing tackler with excellent speed and athleticism, but he's not a big, tough run stopper.
While Allen is the veteran playmaker at the Spur, 6-3, 230-pound junior Demario Jeffery brings more size to the position and bigger hitting ability, if he doesn't end up seeing time on the weakside. As a part of a rotation, he made 35 tackles with three broken up passes, but if needed, he could play any linebacker position to get his athleticism and ability on the field. While Jeffery can play on the inside, 6-2, 246-pound Reginald Bowens has the bulk and the size to be a stronger option. He hasn't been able to stay healthy with shoulder and hamstring issues last year, adding to the problems he has had over his career, but he'll give it a go again after making just three career tackles.
Rotating in on the weakside will be junior Quin Smith, who's more than capable of handling the work on the inside if needed after making 49 stops last year. At 6-0 and 230 pounds, he's a big defender who can play anywhere in the corps and would be a big-time producer as a full-time player.
Junior DeVonte Holloman should be in for a strong season after finishing third on the team with 69 tackles with two interceptions and three broken up passes as a safety. At 6-2 and 226 pounds he's like another linebacker and will start out the year at the Spur, and while he's not a blazer, he packs a wallop. He's not the most consistent player, but he's a good veteran who knows what he's doing.
Watch Out For … Paulk and Wilson to shine. The two have the experience and the smarts to do more for a linebacking corps that was already good. If they can stay healthy, and it's a big if, it's not too much of a stretch to think USC will have a pair of all-star producers.
Strength: Veteran hitters. Paulk and Wilson know what they're doing and they won't make mistakes, and Allen is a talented, experienced playmaker who should be one of the team's top tacklers.
Weakness: Health. It's asking way too much for Wilson and Paulk to last a full season and play at full tilt. If they do, it'll be a major bonus, but the team can't count on it.
Outlook: It's rare that an SEC team loses two good starting linebackers and is fine, but if the depth produces as expected and if Paulk and Wilson are healthy, the corps should be a plus. Smith, Jeffery and Bowens could easily start, and there's more talent waiting in the wings. Like last year, the production should be better than the individual talents, but the talent-level is hardly down.
Unit Rating: 8
State of the Unit: A phenomenal, flaming disappointment, the Gamecock secondary had all the pieces in place to come up with a big year after allowing 11 touchdown passes in 2009. Even though the secondary was helped by the SEC's best pass rush, it still allowed 242 yards per game with 23 touchdown passes while only picking off ten passes (with four of the picks coming against Troy and Furman). There's enough talent coming back to hope for a big turnaround.
The biggest move will be free safety Akeem Auguste going to corner, where he spent time earlier in his career. At 5-10 and 183 pounds, he wasn't really big for a safety, but he made 58 tackles and was physical against the run. The problem was that he wasn't all that natural when the ball was in the air, and the senior is still looking for his first career interception.
Working at the other corner on the other side of Auguste will be junior Stephon Gilmore after coming up with a team-leading 79 tackles with three sacks, three picks, and six tackles for loss in an all-star season. At 6-1 and 194 pounds, he's a big, physical corner who saw time earlier in his career as a Wildcat quarterback and is one of the team's best all-around athletes. South Carolina's Mr. Football as an offensive star, he's just now tapping into his immense potential and talent-level and he should be the best player in the defensive back seven.
With Auguste moving back over to his natural position, junior D.J. Swearinger will need to do even more. The 5-11, 206-pounder was terrific at times at strong safety, making 66 tackles with a pick and five broken up passes, and with cornerback athleticism and good tackling ability, he should be a statistical star with more room to move.
Swearinger could still end up at free safety, but if he doesn't, former corner Jimmy Legree should be ready to handle the job. The 5-11, 180-pound sophomore speedster is a phenomenal athlete with tremendous range, and while he only made four tackles as a reserve last year, he should be one the team's leading tacklers.
Senior C.C. Whitlock has seen starting time over his career and he has been fine, not special, whenever he has gotten his chance. At 5-10 and 181 pounds, he has decent size, the hitting ability to make 21 tackles with an interception and four broken up passes, and just enough to step in at either corner spot or in nickel and dime packages.
Working in at safety will be 6-0, 209-pound sophomore Corey Addison and 5-10, 179-pound redshirt freshman Sharrod Golightly. Addison is a big-hitting option at strong safety who made seven tackles in a limited role, while the rail-thin Golightly is more of a pass defender with great range. Both could be quickly pushed out by Sheldon Royster, a 5-11, 190-pound prospect who was a running back in high school but projects to be a defensive back with a little work.
Watch Out For … Gilmore to get more national attention. While he might not have NFL corner speed, he has the size and the ability to project to be a top No. 2 corner at the next level or a whale of a cover-two safety. If he has another year like he had in 2010, he'll be on several All-America lists.
Strength: Experience. Yeah, South Carolina had the veterans last year and it didn't seem to matter too much, but now there's enough experience and enough options to change things around when needed to get the top four or five defenders on the field at all times. The pass defense was strong in 2009, and it can be again.
Weakness: Giving up the big play. Any quarterback with any semblance of talent was able to throw efficiently on the Gamecock secondary. Only one team, Vanderbilt, was held to under 150 yards while completing fewer than 50% of its passes, while Florida State was kept to just 90 yards because it was running so effectively.
Outlook: The potential is there for the defensive backfield to be a major plus again with upper-classmen across the board and good depth, but it would be nice if the corners could lockdown better and the safeties need to do more when the ball is in the air. There are options, and the coaching staff has to come up with a stronger unit that takes advantage of the great pass rush.
Unit Rating: 7
State of the Unit: A major disaster, the special teams need a ton of work after doing nothing in the return game and with little from the coverage teams. The punting game was fine and the kicking game was decent, but there should be some good battles for jobs.
The biggest issue is at placekicker where Spencer Lanning, who hit 17-of-24 field goals last year, has to be replaced. Senior Jay Wooten has a big leg and served as the team's kickoff man last year, and he'll also serve as the team's punter, like Lanning did. There are other options for both jobs with senior Joey Scribner-Howard owning a strong enough leg to possibly be the placekicker, while redshirt freshman Patrick Fish will be the punter next year if he doesn't get the gig this year.
Sophomore WR Ace Sanders and star corner Stephon Gilmore need to bring more pop to the punt return game after averaging a pitiful 1.8 yards per try, while track sprinter Bryce Sherman averaged a mediocre 20.4 yards per try and didn't break any big ones. D.J. Swearinger will get the first look at the kickoff return job
Watch Out For … Wooten to not handle all the kicking duties. He'll handle at least one of the jobs, and he could see time at both placekicker and punter, but he might be specializing in one area by the time the season starts.
Strength: Coverage teams. They aren't great, but by comparison to the rest of the special teams now that Lanning is gone, they should be the best aspect of the lot.
Weakness: Punt returns. The kicking game could use some help and the punting game needs to shine with Lanning done, but the nation's 115th-ranked punt return game needs the most help. The 90th-ranked kickoff return game could use some help, too.
Outlook: The special teams were surprisingly awful last year, and while it didn't matter too much, it would be nice if the return game could do something productive. The kicking game will be fine in time, but the coaching staff has to figure out right away whether or not Wooten can handle all the duties or if he needs help.
Unit Rating: 5
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2011 South Carolina Defense |
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- South Carolina Previews 2010 |