Aug. 22, 2016
Gamecocksonline.com will take a position-by-position look at the South Carolina football roster leading up to the September 1 season opener at Vanderbilt. Today we will focus on the defensive line.
Lettermen Returning: Kelsey Griffin, Abu Lamin, Marquavius Lewis, Dante Sawyer, Taylor Stallworth.
Lettermen Lost: Cedric Cooper, Gerald Dixon, Gerald Dixon Jr., Phillip Dukes, David Johnson.
Squadmen Returning: Shameik Blackshear, Ulric Jones, Dexter Wideman.
Roster Newcomers: Jajuan Blankenship, Javion Duncan, Griffin Gentry, Kobe Smith, Stephon Taylor, Keir Thomas, Aaron Thompson.
The key to most successful defenses is a strong line, one that can effectively slow the running game while putting consistent pressure on the quarterback to affect the passing game. New defensive line coach Lance Thompson will work to blend a group of linemen to do those things more consistently than they have been able to muster over the past two seasons since the departure of Jadeveon Clowney, the top pick of the 2014 NFL Draft. Ideally, Thompson would like to have 10 defensive linemen ready to answer the bell, as college football’s trend toward fast-paced offenses leads to more substitutions along the defensive front in an effort to keep the players fresh.
Midway through fall camp, Coach Thompson was not yet ready to project his rotation up front. “It’s very fluid,” said Thompson. “We’re working probably 10 guys right now at different positions, moving guys around trying to get the best combination. The main thing is trying to teach them the techniques to get a foundation that will last them through the season so if one guy goes down at one position, the next best guy can go in the game. You always want the best 11 on the field.”
Thompson knows that one of the issues in last year’s 3-9 campaign was the inability to create a consistent pass rush.
“Without question, our defensive line, we’ve got to improve in every area,” he said. “Number one is stopping the run but number two is effectively affecting the quarterback, whether it’s sacks or hurries or just getting him off the spot, getting him out of his rhythm. We’ve got to do a much better job and we’ve still got a long way to go with that, but the guys are working hard at it.”
Two starters return up front in senior Marquavius Lewis and junior Taylor Stallworth. Lewis, a 6-3, 270-pounder former junior college standout, is a quiet leader who is the lone player on the squad who started every game last season. Primarily a defensive end throughout his career, Lewis has also been used in the middle of the line during the fall camp and could see some action there this season, especially in pass rush situations. Stallworth, a 6-2, 310-pounder from Mobile, Ala., will again be asked to plug up the running game and provide inside pressure on the quarterback from his defensive tackle position.
Four other upperclassmen will be counted on this fall, including seniors Kelsey Griffin and Abu Lamin and juniors Dante Sawyer and Ulric Jones. Griffin, a 6-2, 295-pounder from Buford, Ga., was listed as a starter at defensive tackle entering the fall and figures to be a significant contributor in his final season in the Garnet & Black. Lamin, a 6-4, 310-pounder from Fayetteville, N.C., is a former junior college player who is looking for more consistent time in the rotation. Sawyer, a 6-3, 275-pounder from Suwanee, Ga., missed the spring while rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery. After playing defensive tackle most of last season, he has also been working at defensive end this fall. Jones, a 6-3, 300-pound former junior college transfer, took a redshirt season a year ago as the coaches tried him at different positions on both sides of the ball to find out where his skill set fit best.
A pair of redshirt freshmen in 6-4, 265-pound Shameik Blackshear and 6-4, 280-pound Dexter Wideman, will also be given an opportunity to work their way into the rotation this fall.
Keir Thomas and Kobe Smith were two freshmen that graduated early and went through spring drills. Both were impressive, with Thomas, a 6-2, 265-pound defensive end from Miami, earning a spot on the preseason two-deep. Smith, a 6-2, 305-pounder from Lawrenceville, Ga. was limited in the early going following shoulder surgery, but the coaches have been impressed with his abilities.
They were joined in the fall by incoming freshmen scholarship linemen Griffin Gentry, Stephon Taylor and Aaron Thompson. Javion Duncan is a walk-on who is eligible this fall after starting his career at The Citadel. Jajuan Blankenship adds depth as a walk-on.