Over the last decade, the South Carolina football program had some of the most talented and successful teams in its history. While there was plenty of offensive talent making plays for those teams, it was the defense that was the backbone for the success. There is a large group to choose from when trying to pick the Gamecocks best defenders over the past decade. The group ranges from first-round NFL draft picks to All-SEC selections, to some unheralded guys who made an impact despite not getting the recognition they deserved.
All-Decade Team; The Gamecocks Best Defenders
During their run of 11 win seasons under Steve Spurrier, South Carolina had one of the best defenses in the nation. For as much as the Head Ball Coach is known for his innovation and creativity on offense, it was the other side of the ball that propelled this program to much of its success. From 2011-13 this program ranked no lower than 13th nationally in total defense.
Off The Edge
The starting point for the Gamecocks’ best defenders of the decade is an easy one. Jadeveon Clowney was the top-rated recruit in high school as a senior, and the number one pick in the NFL draft three years later. During his time in between at South Carolina, he proved himself as one of the most dominant players in SEC history. An ultra-rare combination of size, speed, and power, Clowney was often unblockable. He is remembered for the infamous ‘hit’ in the 2013 Outback Bowl win over Michigan, but he also holds the school record for most sacks in a season with 13 as a sophomore. The Rock Hill, South Carolina native also set the single-game record for sacks in rival Clemson’s Memorial Stadium with four.
Opposite Clowney at the other end position is sack master Melvin Ingram. It took him a few years to find his spot, but once he found a home at defensive end, he exploded into opposing backfields. As a junior and senior, Ingram totaled 19 sacks, 26 tackles for loss, two interceptions, and scored two defensive touchdowns. He scored a third time on a fake punt at Georgia in a wild game that finished 45-42, good guys. Devin Taylor played most of his career in the shadow of the two aforementioned play-makers. However, he would easily be the first man off the bench to rotate in off the edge. His range and discipline made him an important and reliable performer early in the decade.
Inside the line, there is another obvious choice in Javon Kinlaw. This young man’s development on and off the field in three years in Columbia was remarkable. He changed his body and went from an overweight project to a dominant force in the middle of the Gamecock defense. Kinlaw had 10 sacks over the past two seasons and has developed into a sure-fire first-rounder in the upcoming NFL draft. His imposing size and strength are enough to make him a handful for an offensive lineman. However, it’s his work ethic and attention to detail that took his game to another level.
Besides the big man from Goose Creek, there would be a combination of two unheralded players. Travian Robertson and Taylor Stallworth both spent their careers occupying blockers and clogging up running lanes. While they may not possess the numbers or big plays of the three first-round picks listed beside them, their impact and production cannot be overlooked.
Playing in Space
When looking back at the Gamecocks best defenders since 2010, the linebacker position lacks the star power of the lineman and secondary. That being said, there were still some extremely talented guys chasing down ball carriers for South Carolina. Skai Moore headlines the group, as the only player in school history to lead the team in tackles for four seasons. He was more than just a tackling machine, as his 14 interceptions are tied for the career record at South Carolina. There haven’t been many linebackers at any school over the past decade as good at both tracking down ball carriers and pass coverage as Moore was.
Beside him on the All-Decade defense are Shaq Wilson and T.J. Brunson. Wilson did not have eye-popping numbers, but he was the leader and signal-caller for the best defenses in school history. He finished his career with 246 tackles and four interceptions. His consistency and instincts always had him in the right position on the field. Brunson was the first player Coach Will Muschamp went to visit after taking over the program. He struggled at times over his career but was always a productive tackler. He just finished off his best season as a senior.
Stephon Gilmore was a prized recruit when he arrived on campus in 2009. While he wasn’t as elite a cover corner as he has developed into as a pro, he was a true playmaker in college. He had seven sacks and eight interceptions in his three-year career, before becoming a first-round NFL draft pick. Gilmore had a knack for making big plays. He was also an excellent tackler in the secondary, and when blitzing off the edge. His versatility made him a constant problem for opposing offenses.
On the other corner is Rashad Fenton. He was a bit too erratic at times during his career, but when he was on point, his cover skills were at a high level. He finished his time in Columbia with five interceptions and 19 passes defended. The Miami native recently helped the Kansas City Chiefs win a Super Bowl as a rookie. Rising junior Jaycee Horn would slide inside to be the slot corner on this All-Decade squad. He has been excellent over his first two seasons in garnet and black. He’ll be an upperclassman and leader on the 2020 team.
The last line of the Gamecocks best defenders of the past decade might be its best. D.J. Swearinger headlines the safety position. The Greenwood native is a fan favorite in South Carolina. This is because he played the game with equal parts aggression, joy, and ferocity. Swearinger was the backbone and attitude of the Gamecock defense from 2010-13. His flip inducing hit on Clemson’s Andre Ellington is still a favorite play of many South Carolina fans. He was a trash-talking, hard-hitting safety that also studied film and technique as much as any player in the country.
The spur position was a hybrid safety spot that Ellis Johnson used during his time as the defensive coordinator. He had the luxury of employing both Antonio Allen and Devonte Holloman in that role. Each of them had a knack for making big plays, even though they did so in different manners. Allen was at times a missile sent from the edge of the defense to disrupt opposing backfields. He was known for making plays behind the line of scrimmage and finding the football. He had three career touchdowns on either interception or fumble returns. Holloman was an excellent tackler, a steady performer, and a Clemson killer. The Rock Hill native had three of his seven career interceptions against the upstate rivals.