USC building depth, versatility at DE
The Gamecocks entered the spring knowing they had some talent along the defensive line, but also knowing that most of that talent was young. New defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and defensive line coach Brad Lawing were given the task of developing a workable depth chart, while also getting guys in their best position for their own skill-sets and to get the most playmakers on the field at one time.
The first position move of Johnson's tenure at South Carolina turned out to be one of the biggest moves of the entire spring. Wanting to get Cliff Matthews back to his natural spot rushing off the edge at defensive end, Johnson elected to swap All-SEC defensive end Eric Norwood with Matthews, who at the time was working at outside linebacker.
The move has paid off in a big way for Matthews, who never quite looked comfortable while working at linebacker. The 6'4", 250 pound Cheraw native has shown the incredible first step and explosiveness that made him the no. 6 defensive end in the nation out of high school according to Scout.com.
While everyone knew what Matthews could do as a pass-rusher, he has also shown an ability to make plays in run support. Matthews' forte and ticket to the NFL will always be his ability to get to the quarterback, but his supreme athleticism has allowed him to make plays moving laterally along the line, while also having the speed to chase down plays from behind. Matthews could still use a big summer, and could stand to pack on ten more pounds or so, but the sophomore has been a relentless worker since he arrived on campus so there's no reason to believe he won't continue that trend and contend as a starter in the fall.
While we will have more on Norwood's move to linebacker in the spring review of the linebackers' play, Norwood will not play exclusively at that position. The versatile athlete's ability to also play defensive end will only add to the defense's depth and ability to be multiple with their front seven alignments. Norwood will see most of his time at defensive end in USC's dime package which will featute him spread out opposite Matthews or Clifton Geathers with the single goal of getting to the QB. Norwood is the type of football player who just needs to get on the field some way, and he will make plays no matter where that is.
If Matthews does win a starting spot, then one of two players who will be vying for the spot opposite him is Travian Robertson. Like Matthews, Robertson was highly rated out of high school as a four-star DE, but the big lineman brings a different skill-set to the table. Despite only being a rising sophomore, Robertson just completed his second spring as a Gamecock, after graduating early from Scotland High School last spring. Robertson has taken advantage of that time in the USC weight-training program, packing the pounds onto his 6'4" frame and is sitting at a lean 270 pounds. The amazing thing about Robertson's size is he still could add another 25 pounds and keep the majority of his speed and quickness.
While Robertson's future is likely as a 295-pound defensive tackle, the question now becomes: does he play this year? If Robertson were to redshirt this year, as it would have been ideal for him to do last year, then he could go ahead and make the move to DT, learn the position, and have three years to play there before making a bid for the NFL. While this would work in an ideal world, things are not often ideal in college athletics. Although the Gamecocks do have depth along the line, it will be tough for the coaching staff to justify holding a guy like Robertson, who has been active all spring, out of the starting lineup at defensive end.
Battling with Robertson for a starting spot - or potentially starting opposite him in certain situations - will be redshirt senior Jordin Lindsey. While some will remember Lindsey for his off-the-field and academic issues, the fact is the veteran Alabama native is simply a football player. The 6'3", 261-pounder could have made a big difference for the Gamecocks last season, when they struggled to stop the run for much of the year and especially after team-leader Jasper Brinkley went down.
Lindsey will never be the most athletically gifted player on the field, but he understands what the defense is trying to accomplish, is always in the right spot, and arrives there with a bad attitude. Lindsey will not get mentioned in the hype alongside players like Matthews, Robertson, and Geathers, but as long as he is eligible those guys will have trouble replacing him in the starting lineup.
Geathers is the fourth of the USC ends that will likely rotate in the most and play the most minutes. Geathers joined the USC program as a mammoth prep prospect with NFL bloodlines and a ton of potential, but he was used to dominating lesser competition at Carvers Bay High School. Geathers played sparingly in his freshman season as a raw, somewhat skinny, rush specialist. He had as productive a winter workout session as any on the team and under the guidance of USC strength and conditioning coach Mark Smith is now a not-so-skinny 6'7", 290 pounds.
While Geathers is still only scratching the surface of his potential, he has been extremely coachable under defensive line coach Brad Lawing and is already reaping the benefits of that. The extra pounds as well as a willingness to continue honing his technique has allowed Geathers to become a very active lineman for the Gamecocks, and the big end will only get better. While Geathers likely won't be ready to start in the Gamecocks' opener against NC State, he will play a ton of minutes in what will be predominately a four man rotation. The experience will only help Geathers, who could break out into a dominant playmaker in the near future.
Redshirt freshman defensive end Byron McKnight did not join the Gamecocks with the same recognition as the other DE's in the class of 2007, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have potential. McKnight was actually named the defensive MVP of his Scotland team despite the higher rated and current Gamecock Robertson's presence on that unit. McKnight was listed at 6'4", 220 pounds during the recruiting process, but showed up at South Carolina every bit of 6'5" but very undersized and raw as a player. McKnight has made progress, though; and while he may be one year away, has shown flashes in practice and at the recent Garnet and Black spring game. At 236 pounds now, he still will need to add another 20 or so pounds, but easily has the frame to do so. McKnight likely won't find himself in the regular player rotation on the line, but could get valuable duty in certain situations that could only help his development as a player.
Jumbo athlete Jarriel King may take one of the strangest routes to the University of South Carolina ever, but when he does arrive over the summer there's no doubt he will make a splash. At 6'7", and over 300 pounds King has the size to play inside at defensive tackle or on the offensive side of the ball at left tackle, but he will likely start out at defensive end. While it may be asking too much to expect King to play a ton of downs, especially early in the season, he can be a force in short yardage situations where his size and strength would be hard to deal with for opposing offensive tackles. As the year goes on and King learns the defense he could see his role and his minutes increase.
If Jenkins High School standout Chaz Sutton makes it into school this year, he is also a guy that could contend for playing time. Sutton will have trouble finding the field with the depth in front of him, but he is an explosive pass rusher that could be used as a third down specialist. Sutton also could get a look as an outside linebacker and could earn some playing time there early in his career if he makes a smooth transition. Long term Sutton is a sure-fire end and will fit in nicely with the group of athletic DE's already on the roster.
Nathan Pepper will be returning from a torn ACL that caused him to miss most of last season. While Pepper will play mostly at defensive tackle, he could see some situational action at end on short yardage situations.
Callaway High school lineman Ronald Byrd and Beaufort High School stalwart Devin Taylor will both join the Gamecocks this year, and both will likely redshirt.
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