Mid-season report card: Grading the defense
Despite losses of key contributors such as Jordin Lindsey (academics), Nathan Pepper (season-ending knee injury), and their undisputed leader, Jasper Brinkley (season-ending knee injury), the South Carolina defense has looked better than their offensive counterpart to this point. The unit is led by a young core of sophomores and features statistically the best secondary in the country. At the midway point of the season the unit is ranked No. 4 in the SEC in total yards and No. 2 in scoring defense. The defense's lone achilles' heel has been an inability to stop the run. The run defense is ranked No. 11 in the SEC, a stat that has obviously been affected by the losses of Lindsey, Pepper, and Brinkley.
Here's how GamecockAnthem grades the defense:
The defensive line underwent as big a change as any other position on the Gamecock defense prior to this season. A strong recruiting haul and the return of Marque Hall, who missed the majority of the 2006 season, led to a defensive line that looks much different than the one the Gamecocks fielded a year ago. Freshman Ladi Ajiboye joins Hall on the interior of the line and will be a mainstay there for years to come. The talented newcomer has 18 tackles on the year including a sack. Casper Brinkley started all of last year at defensive end, but played the first few games of this season at linebacker before shifting back to his same defensive end position prior to the LSU game. Brinkley has two sacks on the season. The leader of the defense is bandit end Eric Norwood, who has stepped his game up to an entirely different level in the absence of his injured teammates and is a constant energy source for the defense as he goes all out on every play. The dedicated sophomore is also second on the team in tackles (35) and leads the team in sacks with three. He was a big part of the Gamecocks' mammoth 38-23 win over No. 8 ranked Kentucky when he returned two fumbles for touchdown tying an NCAA record in the process.
A telling stat and big reason why the team has been so successful this year has been the ability of the defense to get off the field. The unit is ranked at the top of the SEC in third down conversion percentage, giving up only an astounding 25.9 percent. One key reason for their success in this category has been improved defensive line play. In previous years an inability to pressure the passer was a big problem for Gamecock defenses. This year's defensive line, however, is tied for third in the SEC with 11 sacks on the season.
While the defensive line is much improved and top to bottom one of the more talented lines ever to wear the garnet and black, the run defense will have to improve down the stretch. The loss of Brinkley hurt more than any, but the line will have to adapt to have any chance at their first SEC title. The biggest problem has been an inability to get off blocks against the upper-tier teams the Gamecocks have played, as well as allowing opponents' offensive linemen to get to the second level to the linebackers.
The South Carolina linebacker corps looks much different than it did in the season opener due to Jasper Brinkley being out and Casper Brinkley being moved to defensive end. So far the unit has played admirably without the stalwart Brinkleys in the middle, though production will need to increase as the season goes on. Sophomore Rodney Paulk leads the way with 31 tackles including a sack, while Marvin Sapp replaced J. Brinkley at middle linebacker, racking up 22 tackles. At the weakside linebacker spot, freshman Cliff Mathews has an impressive size-speed combination, but has been slowed by a large cast on his hand. Matthews has not made as many plays as he is capable of, but his productivity should increase in the following weeks when the cast is removed.
Much like the defensive line, the linebackers have struggled in getting off blocks at times. Melvin Ingram has what can't be taught and brings a physical presence inside which most of the other Gamecock linebackers cannot provide, but he is only a freshman and is not quite ready for the starting job. Continued improvement from him could go a long way for the Gamecocks. Also hampering the run defense is the loss of Dustin Lindsey who has a nagging knee injury that has kept him out since the Georgia game when he returned from injuring the same knee back in the spring. The linebackers will need to improve in order to stop the strong running games featured by Arkansas and Florida.
Ron Cooper's secondary has played as well as any in the country to this point. Leading the way has been sophomore safety Emanuel Cook, who has been all over the field and leads the team in tackles with 37 including 3 tackles-for-loss. Fellow sophomore and starting safety Darian Stewart has stepped his game up and is playing like a veteran. At cornerback Captain Munnerlyn has been the Gamecocks premier shut down corner and is quickly becoming a defender opposing teams respect. His ability to shut down one side of the field gives defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix loads of freedom in his play calling. Opposite Munnerlyn is the only junior of the starters, Carlos Thomas. Thomas has improved on an up and down sophomore campaign in which he wasn't physical enough to have a solid year. Providing depth and versatility is the veteran duo of Brandon Isaac and Stoney Woodson. Both Isaac and Woodson are good cover guys who can play safety and cornerback. Isaac brings a more physical style to the table while Woodson has better hips and is more fluid. As already mentioned, the unit is ranked No. 1 in the country in passing yards allowed (126.5 yds/game) and is also second in the SEC in pass efficiency defense (85.4). Due to their youth, the playmaking Gamecock secondary will only get better in time.
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