A New Era For USC's Defensive Line: Part II
Ryan Brown. DeAdrian Coley. Josh Johnson. Orus Lambert. These are just a few of the names of undersized defensive ends that have played at South Carolina in recent years. Ask any longtime Gamecock fan, and they'll tell you that lack of size and natural playmakers at the defensive end position has haunted USC in run defense and the ability to consistently pressure the passer for as long as they can remember. That trend continued into the first two years of the Steve Spurrier era at South Carolina, but progress is being made.
Thanks to improved recruiting at the defensive end position and better player development once on campus, USC will field one of their best defensive end rotations in years this fall, albeit still a relatively young group.
The return of Freshman All-American Eric Norwood will headline the unit, and after tying for the team lead with 7 sacks in a reserve role last season, Norwood is hoping to become a more complete player while stepping into a starting job this year. The 6'0", 264 pound Norwood had a fantastic spring, wreaking consistent havoc off the edge and showing improvement in run support, which was the big question mark for him following his freshman campaign. Norwood has reportedly had a very strong offseason and is expected to take his game to the next level this fall.
Sophomore defensive end Eric Norwood could become one of the premier pass rushers in the SEC this season.
With several freshmen and sophomores expected to play a key role in USC's defensive end rotation this year, senior Jordin Lindsey will be looked upon for his veteran leadership in the trenches this season. After being named the Liberty Bowl Defensive MVP last December, Lindsey has bulked up to nearly 270 pounds this offseason and is projected to start opposite Norwood on the defensive line. While not as physically gifted as some of the younger talent now on the roster, Lindsey plays with intensity and a motor that never stops. He is strong in run support and has developed a knack for forcing timely turnovers.
Highly touted newcomer Travian Robertson was considered one of the top strongside defensive end prospects in the country coming out of high school last year. After graduating early and taking part in spring practice with the Gamecocks, he got a much needed head start both on and off the football field. The 6'4", 260 pound Robertson has been a fixture in the weight room since arriving on campus and is much more physically mature than the average freshman. He is equally as strong against the run and pass, and while he still must master his technique and assignments, he is expected to crack the two deep and see significant snaps this season.
Cliff Matthews was one of the jewels of South Carolina's consensus top ten recruiting class this past February, and he arrives at USC with the reputation of possessing one of the quickest first steps in the country. The 6'5", 240 pound Matthews has a great frame to grow into, and while he still lacks the size to be an every down type of player in the SEC, his pass rushing skills will be a welcome addition to the defensive end rotation this fall. Matthews has succeeded at every level of competition he has faced, leading Cheraw to a state championship his senior season, winning Defensive MVP honors at the 2006 Shrine Bowl and earning the same award at the Offense-Defense All American Game. Matthews will have a lot to learn under Brad Lawing's tutelage once fall camp starts up, but he is expected to compete for a spot on the two deep this season.
Another prized newcomer in the defensive end rotation this year is Clifton Geathers. Much like Robertson, the 6'7", 270 pound Geathers enrolled at USC in January and got a head start by taking part in spring practice. Considered one of the top offensive tackle prospects in the country coming out of high school, Geathers chose to attend Carolina over Georgia after a stint at prep school because they offered him the opportunity to play on the defensive line. While still very raw as a defensive end, Geathers runs extremely well for his size and has an enormous wingspan that can cause problems for the opposition. He will compete for a spot on the two deep this season, but his most immediate impact could come on special teams, where he is projected to serve as a kick blocking specialist when defending field goals.
Clifton Geathers could become a force on USC's defensive line down the road.
Newcomer Byron McKnight is the final new addition to USC's defensive end rotation this season. The 6'5", 220 pound high school teammate of Robertson was signed with the knowledge that he likely would not make an immediate impact, but could develop into a contributor down the road. McKnight possesses the physical tools to succeed on the college level and has the frame to add significant weight in the coming years. He would likely benefit from a redshirt year, giving him time to adjust to the college game and work in Mark Smith's strength and conditioning program.
After starting at defensive end last season and tying for the team lead in sacks, senior Casper Brinkley made the transition to strongside linebacker in the spring to play alongside his brother, Jasper. While he performed well against the run, Casper struggled mightily in pass coverage, prompting the coaches to mention a possible move back to defensive end. With the start of fall camp this Saturday, Brinkley is expected to remain at linebacker to see how much progress he has made since the spring, but if he struggles, he could return to defensive end, where he would almost certainly crack the two deep. Ironically, Casper was named preseason third team All-SEC as a defensive end by the SEC coaches.
It truly is a new era for South Carolina's defensive line. With a combination of returning talent and impact newcomers, South Carolina's defensive end rotation will be one of the most improved units on the roster this fall. While still relatively young, this unit has as much raw ability as any group in recent memory, and they will only get better with time. When combined with the deep and talented interior defensive line, USC's defensive front has the potential to become one of the best in the SEC this season.
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