A New Era For USC's Defensive Line: Part I
In Steve Spurrier's first year at the helm in Columbia, the Gamecocks featured one of the most porous run defenses in the country, as opponents averaged a whopping 174.2 yards per game on the ground and over 4 yards per carry. However, Spurrier and staff took the early struggles in stride, realizing that USC's defensive line was still very much a work in progress. Last year the Gamecocks showed some improvement in their rush defense, limiting opponents to 146.2 yards per game on the ground, but that number still ranked 9th in the SEC.
Then there's the pass rush. Carolina's inability to consistently generate pressure with their front four in the past has caused fans to dread third down and long situations, as opponents have often had enough time to pick apart USC's secondary and convert first downs in crucial situations.
Enter Brad Lawing.
Lawing, now heading into his second year as South Carolina's defensive line coach, is considered one of the best pure teachers of the defensive front in college football today. After giving USC's d-line a crash course of his philosophy in 2006, Lawing will expect more from his unit this fall. He'll have the luxury of working with four returning starters and an infusion of young talent this season, in what many analysts are predicting will become one of the better defensive lines in the rugged SEC.
Carolina's interior defensive line will be anchored by the return of veteran defensive tackle Marque Hall, who appeared primed for a breakout season in 2006 before suffering a season ending knee injury in week two against Georgia. The former 4-star recruit has worked diligently to rehab his knee over the past eleven months and is expected to be close to 100-percent when fall camp starts up this Saturday. Hall's return will provide the Gamecock defense with the athletic run stuffer on the interior that they lacked for much of last season, and as he showed in last year's season opener, he also has the ability to get penetration into opposing backfield's and pressure the quarterback. On top of his physical ability, Hall is also well respected by his teammates and will provide much needed leadership in the trenches.
The battle for the other interior spot could be intense, as returning starter Nathan Pepper will battle highly touted newcomer Ladi Ajiboye for the starting job. After Hall went down early last fall, the 6'1", 290 pound Pepper stepped up his game and became USC's best interior lineman, recording 25 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 sack and a forced fumble. Pepper, who is known by his coaches and teammates for his dedication both on and off the football field, has added over forty pounds to his frame since arriving in 2005 and has reportedly had another solid offseason in preparation for this season.
Nathan Pepper stepped up as the leader of Carolina's interior defensive line last season after Marque Hall went down with injury.
Ajiboye was the story of the spring after transferring from prep school and enrolling at USC in January. The 6'1", 294 pound Riverdale, GA native, while still fundamentally raw, showed a willingness to learn and was deemed "unblockable" by Spurrier after disrupting the offense throughout the spring. Ajiboye displayed the athleticism and quickness off the line that made him a highly sought after recruit coming out of high school, and after the luxury of taking part in spring practice and going through the summer workouts, he is expected to battle for a starting spot this fall.
Mammoth redshirt freshman Kenrick Ellis is also expected to figure into the defensive tackle rotation this season. After spending the last year trimming down his weight and learning under Lawing, the 6'5", 327 pound Ellis is ready to show why he was considered one of the top defensive linemen in the country coming out of high school in 2006. Ellis often demanded double teams during the spring, as his sheer size caused USC's offensive line problems. While not as consistent as Lawing would like, Ellis showed promise against the run and was occasionally able to disrupt the passing game with his long arms.
Another new face on the interior line this season will be JUCO transfer Jonathan Williams. The Scout.com 4-star rated prospect spent time at both defensive end and defensive tackle during the spring, but after bulking up to nearly 290 pounds this summer, Williams will compete for a spot on the interior line depth chart this fall. Williams has displayed an excellent work ethic since arriving on campus in January and is one of the most physically mature players on the team. In previous years, a player with Williams' ability would have been a shoe-in to earn a starting spot, but with the depth that Carolina is beginning to develop, he will have to battle to crack the two deep this year.
Junior college transfer Jonathan Williams will contend for a spot on the two deep this season.
It speaks volumes about Carolina's depth when a returning senior that started eight games a year ago now appears to be relegated to third string. Such is the case with Joel Reaves, who filled in admirably last year once Hall went down, despite being significantly undersized. Now up to a respectable 294 pounds, Reaves is much more physically ready to contribute, but with the new talent on campus, he will have his work cut out for him to see significant snaps this fall.
Much like Hall, redshirt freshman Terrance Campbell suffered a season ending knee injury early last fall and was forced to sit out the 2006 season. However, the start of fall camp will signify a new beginning for the 6‘2", 282 pound Campbell, as he is expected to be close to 100-percent and will jump into the competition for positioning on the depth chart.
2007 signee Dontee Nicholls will also be given the opportunity to compete this fall, but he would likely benefit from a redshirt year to get stronger and adjust to the college game.
While the interior line must still prove themselves when it counts this season, the Gamecocks are beginning to develop what Florida, Georgia and Tennessee have had for years - quality depth in the trenches. That will likely pay dividends this fall, as USC's defensive front has the potential to be one of the most improved units in the SEC
Stay tuned for part II of this piece later today, as GamecockAnthem takes an extensive look at Carolina's much improved defensive end depth chart heading into fall practice.
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