Our Editor/Publisher Russ Perry wrote an article in his "Closing The Gap" series back in November that was prophetic. In it among a myriad of clues he gave us into this past class of prospects and the coming season he wrote, Closing The Gap - Part 2 of 5 - The Defense - If we are ever going to close the gap and gain ground on the big boys in the SEC we are going to have to find at least four defensive tackles that can line it up and take on anything the SEC throws at us.
How true. In retrospect the beauty of it is that we may have found not four, but six young men capable of playing on a level that will rival anyone else's in the SEC. With the four man front now a reality for South Carolina, it will take at least four serious contributors inside, at the outside defensive tackle spot and nose tackle positions, to fabricate a defense capable of stopping the standard SEC rushing attack while providing more opportunity for us to pressure opposing quarterbacks in the 2003 campaign.
Here is where we stand and why we find ourselves so optimistic.
Randy was not a happy camper coming out of the 2002 season. He has openly stated that he felt he was, "just another number on the roster," at times. He came in believing he was going to be a game-one starting defensive end on last year's defense, but things did not go as planned. Jackson has spent much of the offseason so far verbalizing his unhappiness with various individuals who have relayed word back to us. There were two ways for us to look at that. One is to be disappointed with Randy. The other, the one we choose, is to understand his competive nature and realize his desire to be a major player and contributor to our Gamecock football team. At least we hope this is the case - Spring Practice will tell.
And here begins a new chapter for Randy. Word now has it that Jackson began to "settle-down" once winter workouts got underway and he is now content and focused on developing himself into a NFL Draft Pick caliber player for the upcoming season. At 6-4 290 Jackson has certainly grown into a SEC sized/caliber outside defensive tackle. He has the size and has retained the quickness to do damage if asked to participate in no more than 45% of the snaps leveled against our defense this coming season.
A quick stat. While we went into last season worried about the play of our secondary, opposing teams chose to run the football 65% of the time against us in 2002. Clearly our weakness was stopping the run ... and thus the switchover to the 4-3 defense this year.
So Randy Jackson should expect to be in on roughly 25-30 snaps a game. The remaining 35 or more snaps would be relegated to younger or newer players - more if Jackson fails to live up to expectations. That is also what it will take from Jackson for us to realize success in the new 4-3. And that's what it will take to make Randy Jackson happy - to make him a viable NFL draft pick candidate after his senior campaign. Provided he plays well and continues to work hard, provided Jackson gets his head on straight, being drafted is doable for Jackson. And he is aware of what is being asked of him. He will go into, and come out of, Spring Practice penciled in as the starter at the outside defensive tackle slot if his stars are aligned. If he fails to come out of Spring Practice as a starter then there are problems with Jackson that may not be fixable. This will be one to watch.
The battle for the nose tackle starting job and for all other positions on the depth chart will take place during the spring. Here's how it will begin, we're not completely sure how it will end although we expect it to be ...
Fans will be surprised to learn that we believe Preston Thorne is going to be very difficult to unseat as the starter at nose tackle. While Thorne is only 6-0 tall, he is now pushing 290 pounds, up from the 275 where he regularly contributed last season as a RSSo.
Preston is not a 65% of the snaps player. If he receives 35% of the snaps, he will be hitting his limits. That's not necessarily because he is in poor physical condition, but more a case of the nose tackle being required to take on double-teams and go all out 120% on every snap of the ball - against bigger players with more weight to move around ... especially in the SEC. We did not have the luxury of having quality depth for Langston Moore last season and it showed in several 4th quarters. This season the coaches will not ask any one nose tackle to overextend themselves because of lack of depth.
Preston Thorne is a pace setter - perfect as a starter. He has similar ability to Langston Moore, not quite as quick or strong, yet - but he would make an solid starter at nose tackle because of his savvy and heart. Besides, we hear that the coaches are counting on him to lead the way at the position especially early in the season. This would give some of the younger guys an opportunity to acclimate themselves to their new roles.
Do you realize what we just predicted? The two most experienced returnees are slotted to start on the inside. Jackson and Thorne are solid players who have been through the wars. If anyone else but these two start early next season then something is wrong. Either they have not grown as players or the coaches failed in their development. With Jackson we are going to lay the blame on him personally if he fails to start. With Thorne ... we just see no way he will not start regardless of what the popular notion is these days. Spring practice will prove us correct.
Darrell Shropshire is coming off of shoulder surgery but is making great progress. He is working-out already, while taking it easy on the shoulder. He looks good doing agility drills and running through the paces of the winter regiment. We love watching him in the private player only sessions.
Shropshire is a natural outside defensive tackle. He'll back-up Randy Jackson initially, but he will press Jackson for starting time immediately and it will not surprise us if Shropshire moves past Jackson in the spring. For anyone who might be evoking visions of Shaun Smith and a wasted first year in the system following JuCo ball ... forget it. Shropshire is miles ahead of Smith at this same point in their transfers.
First of all Shropshire is a physical specimen unlike anything we have seen from the transfer ranks in quite sometime. The 6-4 290 pound athlete runs a legit 4.9 forty and his verticle leap (30 inches) is unreal for a young man his size.
As you may remember, Smith reported in the heat of two-a-days 30 pounds overweight. Mamma Shropshire did not raise such a foolish child. Darrell has already enrolled and is determined to go into spring drills in the best shape of his life. If not, he will certainly come out of spring drills that way and he will have a taste of what he is going to have to do to be prepared for two-a-days.
Pencil Shropshire in as a back-up for Jackson on the depth chart for the moment - but we give him a strong chance to earn a starting role by two-a-days.
Tucker (6-2 290) spent much of last season on the offensive line out of necessity. Some may say that hampers his chances at substantial playing time in the upcoming season, because others saw more practice time at the position this past season?
In fact, we expect Tucker to push Thorne for the starting role at the nose tackle slot early in the season. We're not saying he will win the battle but he will certainly become a major contributor in short order. The reason is that much like a quarterback moving to wide receiver or the secondary ... Tucker's time on the offensive line afforded him an opportunity to study his opponent's tactics to the point that Coach Lounseberry believes it will aid him in the trenches as a nose tackle.
Tucker has good quickness and exceptional strength. He is shorter - that's not a disadvatage for a good nose tackle. Given the spring drills, back on the defensive side of the ball and again working with the familiar Lounseberry, Tucker will be ready to go all-out by summer. Look for him to get 10-15 downs a game this season.
Stroman (6-3.5 285) is a tackle of the future for the Gamecocks. He came to the program with the god-given physical attributes of a potential big-time football player. He has struggled at times learning the system and the technique that would push him over the edge from average to very good. He also seems to be somewhat injury prone which has led the Gamecock coaches to question his toughness at times. Stroman will be entering his third year in the system this season.
Eric is strong, and a diligent worker in the weight room. But his footwork and coordination has held him back more than some had hoped by this stage in his career. You see, Stroman has the appearence of such a man among boys at times, that some forget he is only a teenager still waiting for his brain to set pace with his body. When it all comes together we expect great things.
Stroman needs to establish himself as one of the more improved players on the team this spring. He has to avoid lost time due to injuries. If things go as planned he might even be one of the finalists for the "most improved players award" by mid-April. That will be something to watch for. And by two-a-days he should have gained the confidence in himself, and from our coaches, to become a factor in the upcoming season. Where he will play is still a question mark. He is somewhat of a tweener that could find himself at a back-up nose tackle or defensive tackle spot by game-one.
The question arises, "will we always line-up with a shorter nose tackle and a larger defensive tackle?"
The answer is, not necessarily - no. You could see two of the taller guys in on the same set in certain situations. More than likely those would be 3rd and long opportunities where the larger guys could split the offensive line equally in an attempt to draw a double-team and allow our linebackers to shoot-the-gap. Another advantage in that situation would be having the longer-armed taller tackles in there knocking down passes, or atleast providing obstacles, making it more difficult for opposing QBs to throw the quick poppers over the middle. That's something that killed the Gamecocks last season.
The shorter nose tackle alignment would then be used mostly in 1st and 2nd and long situations ... or even 3rd and short or 4th and short if an opposing offensive coordinator dare challenge us in that event.
But back to Stroman and why we veered off course for that moment. Stroman, while a tweener, is actually closer to 6-4 than 6-3. That's why our coaches like him as an outside tackle verses a nose tackle for the moment. And there is another reason ...
Schweitzer might cause the most excitement in the minds of Gamecock fans when they consider his physical stature and his legendary status on a national scale as a heavyweight wrestler in high school.
Brandon has a mean streak in pads. And even though he was unable to keep his weight down to fullback proportions, his 6-2.5 285 pound frame is perfect for the nose tackle spot - especially given his knowledge of the use of leverage gleaned from his years in the heavyweight wrestling game. Thus Stroman would be better used on the outside if Brandon contributes at the nose.
Schweitzer is another hard worker in the weight room. He is a no-nonsense no-necker who has a gift for overcoming opposing forces be they iron objects or guys in tights or we hope ... offensive linemen. But he is only a RS Freshman. We need to remember that. Redshirted freshmen, even those as physically gifted as Schweitzer, need time to develop mentally. They have to battle-harden themselves to the pain associated with butting heads in the trenches. Especially when facing older, more experienced and wiley, SEC offensive linemen.
For that reason we are projecting Schweitzer to be a 5-10 snaps a game player this season ... but not until the fourth or fifth games of the campaign. Until then, with the exception of perhaps the Louisiana-Lafayette and Alabama-Birmingham games and provided we have comfortable leads, we don't see Brandon being a go-to-guy until he has had a chance to groove into his new role on the defensive side of the football. It will take half a season to get him there.
Patience Gamecock fans. Brandon Schweitzer is going to be a good one on the defensive line.
We can hear you now. "WHY DID YOU WAIT SO LONG TO LIST SAINT PREUX?!?"
Here's why ... because he is not here yet. Freddy will play this year there is no doubt about it. And he will play early. But he does not arrive until after spring drills have concluded and that places him at a decided disadvantage going into two-a-days.
Saint Preux (6-5 305 4.9) is your prototypical SEC defensive tackle. At least Alabama thought enough of him to offer twice ... once out of high school and again out of JuCo. And there were plenty of others who courted him - Texas A & M for one given Dennis Fracione's penchant for following him and staying with him from Bama to TAMU.
Thankfully the Gamecocks signed Freddy - and he will become a major contributor to our interior defensive line at some point in 2003. Probably earlier rather than later. And he'll be asked to provide depth to the outside defensive tackle position manned by Shropshire, Jackson, and Stroman. That's why we noted, and would not be surprised to see, Stroman used at nose tackle in certain situations.
Doughty is a current signee who may surprise us. We just recently found out that he is now fully qualified. We expect he will still come in as a redshirt regardless - unless he simply overwhelms the coaches into leaving them no choice but to play him. So place him out of your mind on the coming season's depth chart for now. That could change mind you - we hear he is that good. But if they can redshirt him thanks to all of the above talent, then they will. One thing about Doughty is that he may be the strongest high schooler we have ever signed. And when we say 'strong' we mean not only with the weights but physically. He is in shape, and he has a very strong mind from what we hear. He loves the game and plays with intensity
Remember, we are moving to a 4-3 defense next season. In the above synopsis we offered an informed educated scenario for our "interior" defensive tackle depth chart. This does not include the defensive ends of course - we'll get to them shortly.
Randy Jackson and Preston Thorne are the naturals to start this coming season. If Jackson falters in the least then expect Shropshire to make his move during the spring. Chris Tucker is an obvious choice as a backup. Fran Person may see time at defensive tackle during spring drills but we would not expect him to stay there and will instead list him in our defensive ends scan when the time comes.
No interior defensive lineman should be asked to contribute for more than 50% of the snaps. Thorne should never be asked to face more than 35% of the snaps. Both starters will remain relatively fresh if we are able to limit their numbers by substituting frequently ... and that is one of the main points of focus our coaches will address this spring.
Look for Eric Stroman and Brandon Schweitzer to definitely contribute. And we should all fully expect Freddy Saint Preux to learn at an accelerated pace enough to make his presence known in time for the Virginia and Georgia games.
We made our best effort to review past seasons and past squads in an attempt to find a comparable pool of defensive tackle talent on any Gamecock football team in the past 15 seasons. There was none. Not one squad that we could recall had half the overall size, depth and talent of the current corp of defensive tackles.
Tennessee, Biggest 6-4 303, Smallest 6-2 285, Total Returning 4. Two Juniors, two sophomores.
Alabama, Biggest 6-7 345 ... and 6-3 345, Smallest 6-4 255. Returning 4. Two Seniors, two sophomores.
Florida, Biggest 6-3 285, Smallest 6-1 265. Returning 4. Two seniors, one junior, one sophomore.
Georgia, Biggest 6-1 320 x 2, Smallest 6-3 285. Returning 4. One senior, three sophomores.
We finally compare very favorably to the big boys in the SEC at the defensive tackle position.