The Gamecocks linebackers should be much improved in 2019. While this group remained mostly healthy a season ago, it was not immune to the struggles that hit the South Carolina defense. What has been a thin group in the last two seasons, will be bolstered by some much-needed depth this fall. Some of the younger players were forced to play too much too early, which was also the issue with the entire defense. That accelerated learning curve should pay off as the youth at this position will be prepared to step up when needed.
Gamecocks Linebackers Will Improve With Added Depth
During the 2018 campaign, South Carolina could not stop the run consistently. The Gamecocks linebackers struggled with communication and physicality. Starters T.J. Brunson and Sherrod Greene were forced to play too many snaps because the depth was not there. They wore down in games and did not play with the aggression and force needed at the position. Too often, before bringing down an opponent, South Carolina tacklers gave up additional yards after first contact. They must improve in that area.
Brunson was the first recruit Will Muschamp visited after taking the job in Columbia. The senior is now a leader on this team, evident by his selection to represent the program at SEC Media Days. He led the team in tackles a season ago. That stat can be misleading when assessing a defenders performance. Brunson didn’t have a bad season by any means, but he can definitely improve in several areas. He has worked at the outside linebacker spot early in fall camp, which could give him more opportunities to create big plays. As a junior, he tallied over 100 tackles and four sacks. His biggest area for improvement is playing downhill more often and attacking ball carriers as opposed to dragging them down.
Greene is the other veteran of the group, entering his third season for South Carolina. He, like Brunson, must find a way to play a more physical and aggressive style. He has just three tackles for loss in 21 career games. Even for the more coverage oriented guy, that is not enough. A healthy and more consistent defensive line will help open up more lanes for second-level defenders to attack the line of scrimmage. Greene has bulked up, which should improve his physicality.
Both veterans will have the luxury of more talent behind them. Neither will have to play nearly as many snaps as last season, allowing both to be fresher mentally and physically late in games.
Gamecocks Linebackers Building Depth
The reason Brunson and Greene will not be asked to play as many snaps on defense this season is that the players behind them are more equipped to step in. Ernest Jones has been at the top of that list of improved players. With Brunson sidelined during spring practice, Jones stepped into the starting role at Mike linebacker. The Sophomore performed so well that he kept that spot as fall camp has begun. The ability of Jones to take the Mike spot allows Brunson to move to outside linebacker. Jones has received praise for his growth in the offseason from position coach Coleman Hutzler, and could really break out as a sophomore.
Damani Staley, Rosendo Louis, and Jahmar Brown have also caught the eye of the coaching staff so far in fall camp. All three young players could get a chance to make an impact this fall. Coach Hutzler commented on how the comfort level he has in the depth of the Gamecocks linebackers is rising each day. Trusting the back-ups will allow the coaching staff to remain aggressive and consistent in their play-calling when the front line guys get a rest.
Brown has shined at times during summer workouts and fall camp. The freshman has a bright future in Columbia. Louis battled shoulder issues and inconsistencies in 2018 but should be better prepared to help the defense as a sophomore. He brings size and strength to this group. Staley was a dynamic pass rusher in high school and could help South Carolina get to opposing quarterbacks. He is the son of former Gamecock star Duce Staley. Senior Eldridge Thompson is also back after missing last season due to injury.
By Force If Necessary
South Carolina allowed almost 200 yards per game on the ground a season ago. That is not good enough. The physicality and aggressiveness of this defense must improve in 2019. Considering how beat up this team was a year ago, health could be the biggest factor in this defense’s ability to bounce back. If they stay healthy, the Gamecocks linebacker unit should take a big step forward. The group has experience returning, and the youth has begun to prove their worth. The added depth will help raise the level of performance. This group has to play better, and all signs point to that coming to fruition this fall.