College football is a game that is often won and lost in the trenches. Take a look at the teams that have contended for conference and national titles recently and you will see varying levels of dominance along the line of scrimmage. In the past few seasons, South Carolina has improved greatly on the offensive line, and looks to be in good shape moving forward. The Gamecocks’ defensive line now needs to take steps forward to help this program elevate itself. A combination of a couple of solid recruiting classes, the return of a few injured players, and greater depth and experience should help this unit make that leap. If Coach Will Muschamp‘s team is to rebound from the disappointments of last season, they have to.
Gamecocks’ Defensive Line Looking to Take Step Forward
It wasn’t so long ago that the strength of this football program was along the line of scrimmage. During the run of three consecutive 11 win seasons, the Gamecocks’ defensive line was dominant. Jadeveon Clowney, Melvin Ingram, Devin Taylor, and Cliff Matthews terrorized quarterbacks throughout the southeast. It has been a few years since South Carolina has had a game changer on its defensive front. They hope to have a few different play makers emerge from this season’s group.
Experience and depth have been huge issues for Muschamp as he has tried to build his defense. The Gamecocks’ defensive line will have multiple talented veterans to rely on in 2019. Javon Kinlaw decided to return for his senior season after a brief flirtation with NFL possibilities. The mammoth defensive tackle showed flashes of dominance last season, but consistent production was missing. He has the size and skills to be a disruptive force on every play. Kinlaw should benefit from the improvements around him, if it allows him to face less double teams.
D.J. Wonnum was supposed to have a breakout season in 2018. Instead he became the first in a long line of injured players on the defensive side of the ball. An ankle injury in the first game led to him red-shirting for the season. As a sophomore he had begun to blossom, with 13 tackles for loss and six sacks. His ability to beat blockers and make plays in the back field was sorely missed. Wonnum’s return will give the Gamecocks’ defensive line the disruptive force it lacked in 2018.
Depth of Talent
Muschamp knows how to build a defense, and he knows it all starts up front. He has worked to recruit and develop higher level talent since arriving in Columbia, and his efforts should start to pay off next season. The phrase competitive depth is one that the head man uses often. With more players capable of playing at a high level, playing time is no longer a given. Each player’s focus and effort has to be high in order to continue getting on the field. Also when you have to rotate due to injury or fatigue, the level of production doesn’t reduce as drastically.
Kobe Smith, Aaron Sterling, and Keir Thomas will look to provide that depth in the trenches. Smith, a senior interior lineman, is a space eater. He may not have eye popping numbers or highlight plays, but that’s not what’s needed from him. This defense needs him to occupy blockers and clog running lanes. His confidence ans production grew during his junior campaign, and he will be a key part of the Gamecocks’ defensive line as a senior.
Sterling was playing his best football before an injury ended his season. He will need to continue his improvement, and make a more consistent impact off the edge. South Carolina has struggled rushing the passer in recent seasons, they need to create more pressure up front.
Thomas has been a contributor since arriving in Columbia. His versatility, combined with the team’s lack of depth, has meant he has lined up all across the front. He can play on the end or inside at tackle. Thomas is very adept at beating blockers off the ball, but he has struggled to finish the play with the tackle far to often. Getting into the opposing backfield is a useful skill, but finishing the play consistently separates good from great.
Mushcamp will have more experience than he has previously had for his garnet and black defense in 2019. However, youth will still play a major role in the success of the Gamecocks’ defensive line. A couple of the young guys could have breakout seasons this fall. Kingsley Enagbare and Rick Sandidge were thrown to the wolves as freshman. As the injuries piled up, these two were forced to play a great deal more than expected. Now a year older an stronger, they will look to build on what the learned in their trial by fire.
Enagbare was forced to play out of position on top of everything else a season ago. He moved back to defensive end this spring and has looked very good. His quick step and shoulder dip will make him a problem for opposing offensive lineman. He is long, tall, and has an exceptional burst coming off the ball. Enagbare has the potential to be a force rushing the passer as he continues to develop.
Sandidge will try to make more of an impact on the interior of the line as a sophomore. The combination of winter and summer workouts, sandwiched around spring practice should do him a world of good. Playing at defensive tackle, getting bigger and stronger will be his focus moving into 2019. A full off-season of developing in those areas should see him better suited to handle the physicality of SEC opponents. He has the talent, and his experience as freshman should serve him well moving forward.
Future is Now
Freshmen Joseph Anderson and Zacch Pickens both participated in Spring practice. Anderson drew praise from the defensive staff in spring. He is a big kid, who likes being coached and is eager to learn so he can improve. His competitiveness also stood out, he plays hard every snap. Pickens was the prize of this past recruiting class. The five star product from up state South Carolina comes in with big expectations. He has the highest upside of anyone along the Gamecocks’ defensive line, but as a freshman his first task is to learn and grow. Pickens has the talent to help this team in 2019, how fast he adjusts to college ball will determine how large and impact he will make.