While a youth movement was the name of the game for the South Carolina offense in 2016, it was a veteran-led and much improved defense that was the real reasoning behind the team being able to get to a bowl game. However, with eight seniors graduated off the two-deep from 2016, including four starters in the front seven, can this year’s Gamecock defense continue to build on the defensive turnaround from last year’s unit?
A year after ranking 95th in the S&P+ Defensive rankings, the South Carolina defense jumped up to 50th in the first year of the Will Muschamp era. Strong defense has always been Muschamp’s calling card, and he’s proven the ability to put top defenses on the field throughout his career, leading high performing units as a defensive coordinator at LSU, Auburn, and Texas. Even his failed tenure as the Florida head coach was not at all attributable to the defenses he put on the field. During his UF days, his defenses ranked 35th, 4th, 15th, and 6th in his four seasons.
Travaris Robinson (you may remember him from his playing days at Auburn) is the man running the defense (at least in job title) for the Gamecocks. Robinson has been with Muschamp for the last seven years, starting as the Defensive Backs coach for Muschamp at Florida, following him to Auburn the year after they were both canned in Gainesville, and then being hired as the DC at South Carolina upon Muschamp’s hiring in Columbia. He’s a strong recruiter who cut his coaching teeth on some horrendous defenses at Western Kentucky and Southern Miss before a one-year stop over at Texas Tech before hitching his wagon to the Muschamp’s.
A look at Muschamp-led defenses shows typically solid performance across the board. They are, for the most part, not a defense that lives and dies by a certain mantra. The 2016 South Carolina defense, though, was more of a bend-but-don’t break unit compared to normal Muschamp defenses, with a strong secondary making up for a weak defensive line. Given the returning personnel, the same style of defense should be in the works this year.
On the defensive line, the Gamecocks will need to replace DE Darius English, the team leader in Tackles-For-Loss (TFL) and Sacks a year ago. English was the only player on the South Carolina team to record double-digit TFLs and the only player with more than two sacks last year... that could be a problem for the 2017 Gamecocks. You don’t normally see a team with a weak pass rush lose it’s best pass rusher and somehow end up getting more pressure and penetration into opposing teams’ backfields. English’s starter on the other end of the line, Marquavius Lewis, is also gone. Both starting DTs (SR Taylor Stallworth, SR Ulric Jones) return, but if the Gamecocks can’t find a replacement (and then some) for English’s pass rushing abilities, the entire defensive unit is going to suffer this year. Teams figured out late last year that the South Carolina run defense was little more than a speed bump (heck, Western Carolina ran for 242 yards at a 5.76 yards/carry clip in a late November game); that’s probably going to be the same story without vastly improved play from the line.
At the linebacker level, South Carolina loses two of three starters from a rather poorly performing unit a year ago, but does return SR Skai Moore, the best players from the 2015 defense who missed all of last year with injury. Moore’s addition is bigger than the loss of either of the graduated 2016 starters, not to mention that the one returning starter (SR Bryson Allen-Williams) was the top performing LB from the 2016 team. Moore is a difference maker on defense, and a player the Wolfpack should keep an eye on in the opener. The 2017 South Carolina LB corps should be stronger than the 2016 unit, but will also be a very thin one with no proven depth behind the starters (Moore, Allen-Williams, and SO T.J. Brunson)
On the back end of the defense, South Carolina comes into the season looking like one of the stronger units in the SEC, but as Steven noted in an article a few days ago, that unit is coming into the opener a bit beat up. The secondary returns it’s top safety (SR D.J. Smith), it’s top three corners (SR Jamarcus King, SR Chris Lammons, JR Rashad Fenton), and the one starting safety they do lose was probably actually outperformed last year by another who’s returning (JR Steven Montac). Lammons will be moving from CB to S this year, a move that gives the unit more experience and gets their top playmakers on the field at the same time. Montac is questionable for the opener, but when healthy, he should see a nice share of playing time, and could be the safety in nickel coverages with Lammons moving to the nickel cornerback position. Either way you look at it, this is a strong secondary that should be the rock of the defense again in 2017.
Since I don’t really want to write a separate post for the Special Teams unit, I’ll cover that here briefly: both the punter and the placekicker/kickoff guy are gone. Sean Kelly was a very good punter who will be missed, although SO Michael Almond did well in his huge workload of two punts last year. Elliott Fry will not be missed on kickoffs (29.8% touchback rate), but he was 13-17 on FGs and 31-31 on XPs last year. That’s hard to beat and is probably an area of concern, or at least uncertainty, heading into the year.
All the returners, uhhh, return for 2017. South Carolina punt returners in 2016 combined for only 13 returns, which tells me that the they didn’t do a great job of stopping the gunners from the coverage team. The kickoff return guys are a bit scary, though, with JR Deebo Samuel (26.9 yards/return average, 1 TD) and SO A.J. Turner (24.7 yards/return average) both back. Avoiding giving them opportunities would probably be a smart play.