The 2016 and 2018 groups were low on options — the former year because of a coaching transition, the latter because of a spate of injuries that decimated the safety spot and wore down the front. The group in the middle proved solid against the run and prevented big plays against the pass.
The group has some good pieces going forward. Second-year defensive backs Jaycee Horn, R.J. Roderick and Israel Mukuamu return on the back end. Both starting linebackers Sherrod Greene and T.J. Brunson are back, and the team could be in position to start four seasoned seniors up front — including D.J. Wonnum and Javon Kinlaw — with at least four blue-chip reserves behind them, including five-star Zacch Pickens.
Things haven’t been that smooth any of the three seasons, however, so this could go a few ways.
1. A plan comes together
South Carolina’s loading up on the defensive line finally pays off. The linebackers — green and inconsistent a season ago — become something more consistent. Enough players step up around the core three of the secondary, including one or two freshmen. That allows the Gamecocks to tackle a difficult schedule with a real, live “Will Muschamp defense.”
Stat to watch for: Havoc plays from the front six. A deep defensive line is going to be getting sacks, forced fumbles and pressures. An active linebacker group making progress will be getting hands on balls and contributing to the pass rush.
2. Another bend-don’t-break campaign
The Gamecocks have been strapped for bodies in the back seven the past three seasons. If there isn’t progress from the linebackers and more than two or three defensive backs, they’ll be against the wall in terms of bodies yet again. That trends toward a bend-don’t-break back end, mostly against the pass.
Stat to watch: Red zone defense and turnovers. South Carolina’s first two defenses made a living tightening up close to the goal line, often by forcing turnovers. Those dried up in 2018, and there wasn’t enough from the rest of the defense to hold up.
3. The injury bug bites or development halts
USC could end up starting four senior defensive linemen and boast depth if things break right. But three were hurt at times last season, as was nearly every defensive back and at times some linebackers. If things go that way again, the Gamecocks could find themselves throwing out bodies and hoping for the best.
Stat to watch: Number of total players who get starts in the back seven. Trending past 10 is bad. Bonus stat will be yards per carry. When Muschamp defenses have struggled at USC, it’s most apparent against the run.