Spring wrap-up: Defensive tackle
After a true freshman season that saw him make 39 tackles and three sacks from his defensive tackle spot, Ladi Ajiboye is poised to have an even better campaign in his second year at South Carolina. Ajiboye had an incredible year for a freshman interior lineman, which landed him on multiple freshman All-SEC and freshman All-American lists. The 6'1", 300 pound Banneker HS product showed no signs of letting up this spring and has as much upside as any defensive tackle at USC in a long time. Ajiboye has impressive quickness and a knack for knifing into the backfield, which led to him making more tackles than any other DT on the team last year. The key to Ajiboye's success will be for him to continue his development. If he does that, then the sky is the limit for him. Barring injury Ajiboye will be one of the starters at DT this year and has All-SEC potential, possibly sooner rather than later.
There will be a battle for the chance to start alongside Ajiboye, but exiting the spring senior Jonathan Williams has to be considered the frontrunner for that job. A tireless worker, Williams started just three games last year, but came on strong late in the year and had a productive offseason. By his own admission, Williams is a lot more comfortable in the program in his second year than he was last season when he transferred in from Mississippi Delta Community College. The 6'2", 290-pounder will look to build on last season when he had 13 tackles and a sack, including a game-changing forced-fumble that was returned for a touchdown against Kentucky. Williams, who was named the Most Improved Defensive Tackle of the spring, is a relentless player on the interior and a good complement to the explosive Ajiboye. He should reap the rewards of his offseason work by putting together a solid senior campaign.
Battling with Williams to start in the Gamecocks' opener against NC State is senior Marque Hall. Hall enrolled at South Carolina as one of the most highly-rated defensive tackle prospects ever to become a Gamecock. In 2006 Hall looked ready to bust out for a monster year like many had been waiting on, but a season-ending ACL injury put all of that on the back-burner. Hall returned to the lineup last season, making 22 tackles and sack, but he never seemed to return to his pre-injury form. After a solid spring, Hall will start this season almost a full two years removed from his injury. While it remains to be seen, if Hall can return to his old form he could be a disruptive force on the interior of a deep USC defensive line and maybe even play his way into the NFL draft. Even if Hall is never the same again, he is still a quality SEC-level player.
If not for a three-game suspension to start the year, redshirt sophomore lineman Kenrick Ellis might have something to say about Hall or Williams starting alongside Ajiboye. The 6'5", 353 pound West Palm Beach, Fla. native has struggled with weight problems during his young career, but has an extremely high upside. While still at around 350 pounds, under the guidance of strength and conditioning coach Mark Smith, Ellis has completely re-shaped his body and has a goal of being around 330 pounds by the beginning of fall camp. Ellis showed what he was capable of late last year with nine tackles in the final three games, including a career-high five stops in the season finale against arch-rival Clemson. Ellis can play at his current weight, but even he admits he could be in for more plays at his target weight. For Ellis to be an every down player, he probably does need to drop those 20 pounds. If he does so, when he returns from the suspension, then seniors like Hall and Williams may not even be able to keep him out of the starting lineup.
The forgotten man at DT is redshirt junior and Greenville native Nathan Pepper. Pepper suffered a season-ending left knee injury against SC State last season. While not highly-recruited and sometimes overlooked due to more athletic players around him, Pepper has been a consistent playmaker during his USC career, racking up 30 tackles including five for loss, and two interceptions. Pepper will provide another experienced player to a d-line rotation that may feature more able bodies than it ever has. The key to Pepper's season will be how well he can return from the knee surgery.
Georgia Military Academy transfer Jarriel King will join the team this summer and could start out at defensive tackle or defensive end. King will bring a special combination of size and quickness to the fold with a 6'7" frame and weighing in at over 300 pounds. The former North Charleston standout will not have the knowledge of the defense the preceding five players do, but does have an NFL upside and will likely be used in certain situations.
Redshirt freshman Donte'e Nicholls will get his first chance at playing time in the Garnet and Black, but is probably a year away from really contributing. The 6'1", 311-pounder showed some flashes in his first spring at USC, but needs to have a solid offseason in the weight room to shed some pounds and re-shape his body to fully reach his potential.
Incoming freshman Kenny Davis, a standout at Newberry High School, will join the fold this summer. Davis has the size and athletic ability, but will need a redshirt year to work his way into the rotation. Defensive end Travian Robertson could also eventually move his way to the defensive tackle spot.
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