It has been a long season for the South Carolina Gamecock defense. A string of injuries in the final few weeks had them stretched as thin as they could possibly be. A unit that was solid at full strength is now being beaten down by both injuries and opponents. The bend but don’t break strategy employed by Coach Will Muschamp was becoming much more break than bend. The Gamecock defense struggled to get stops in their last four games against Power Five competition. One bright spot in the injury-riddled free fall was that coordinator Travaris Robinson’s unit took was the playing time for so many young guys.
Bowl Prep Crucial to Young Gamecock Defense
The Gamecock defense lost a lot of veteran leadership from a year ago and was already going to be young in multiple areas. Then, the injuries hit and the defense got even younger. The defensive struggles began in a win over Tennessee. For most of the night, they couldn’t get third-down stops and were on the field for too many plays. They bowed up late in the game and forced two failed fourth down conversions to secure the victory. The next week was a shootout at Ole Miss. The Rebels explosive offense racked up 600 yards in three quarters. Once again, the Gamecock defense stiffened late and allowed only 10 yards and no points in the fourth to seal another victory. That was also the day where the injuries really started to mount. The poor conditions of the field in Oxford led to multiple players going down with an injury.
By the time South Carolina made the trip to Gainesville, their injury report looked like an essay. The Gamecock defense folded late, and the Gators rallied from 17 points back to win 35-31. This loss was a crucial one. Muschamp’s squad could have earned a second straight winning record in the SEC if the defense could have made just one stop late. Injured starters Bryson Allen-Williams, D.J. Wonnum, Aaron Sterling, and Jamyest Williams surely could have made a difference. The defense was so thin by the end of the season, they struggled to make any stops in the last few games. South Carolina scheduled a make-up game with Akron for the first week in December, and it gave them a chance to build some confidence after a rough stretch. They played well against the Zips, and a few of the younger defenders began to stand out.
With so many players missing, multiple freshmen have been propelled into more prominent roles than expected in the fall. South Carolina is currently prepping for its Belk Bowl match-up with the Virginia Cavaliers. These extra weeks of practice could prove vital for the young Gamecock defense. The freshman will now have a chance to catch their breath, refocus, and build on what they have learned so far. Having depth is crucial on defense when going through the grind of an SEC season. Most of the injured players will return next season, and the younger guys filling in will have the experience to lean on as they grow.
The bowl game is a great opportunity for some of the younger guys to take a step forward before the off-season. It will be interesting to see if the extra weeks of practice lead to improvement. Despite the late-season struggles, there were some younger guys who showed good signs and could break out in the bowl game and beyond.
Players to Watch
Kingsley Enagbare – Defensive Tackle/End
The 6’4 285 pound Enagbare played in eight games this season, mostly as a rotational player along the defensive line. His first extended game action came against Tennessee. He flashed throughout the game, disrupting a few plays in the backfield and showing great pursuit on a few others. The Akron game was his best day so far in Columbia. The freshman defensive tackle had six stops, two for a loss, and his first career sack. With starter Javon Kinlaw out for the bowl game, Enagbare could play a major role in Charlotte.
Rick Sandidge – Defensive Tackle
Sandidge was a big-time recruiting win for the Gamecock defense last spring. He had his best performance of the season against rival Clemson. The big freshman had seven tackles including one for a loss. He stood up Tiger All-American Christian Wilkins at the goal line as Clemson tried to power it in with their jumbo package. He also had half a sack late in the Ole Miss game that helped seal that victory. Sandidge will likely see his role increase at the Belk Bowl as well.
R.J. Roderick – Safety
Roderick had never played safety before arriving on campus in Columbia. He picked up his new position very quickly though and was a mainstay in a beat up secondary by season’s end. His 51 total tackles rank fifth on the team, he also forced a fumble. In the Akron game, he had multiple big hits, something the Gamecock defense has been missing from its secondary over the past few years. He has started the last few games and can build on his solid freshman season with a good day in the bowl game.
Building for the Future
The injuries this season have crippled the Gamecock defense in terms of depth, but it may have helped them in terms of development. Next season could see a huge jump from this unit, as all these young players will return with valuable experience. Enagbare, Sandidge, Roderick have all joined Jaycee Horn as solid freshman contributors throughout the season. Corner Israel Mukuamu, linebacker Ernest Jones, and defensive tackle Josh Belk have also shown their potential to help this team moving forward.
This group will have a chance to grow together. Next season, the defense looks to turn into the kind of unit Coach Muschamp is accustomed to having. As the bowl game approaches, the focus will be on finding out which of the young guys have utilized the extra practice time to build on their freshman campaigns.