South Carolina defense’s chemistry has increased a lot’ in spring practice
South Carolina football has longed for a high-grade defensive line since the days of Clowney and Ingram. The Gamecocks might have the pieces to return to up-front dominance, but that relies on a pair of factors.
One is production from a young group. South Carolina has added four blue chip players and a couple junior college players. The second factor is the seniors, a group of five who have been through most of the Will Muschamp era.
And the coach placed a particular charge on them.
“I’m really challenging Javon (Kinlaw),” Muschamp said at SEC Media Days. “Along with four other seniors defensively with our defensive line that need to have great years in order for us to have the type of year we need to have. Javon, Keir Thomas, Kobe Smith, Danny Fennell and Dennis Wonnum. Those five are quality football players that need to play well for us.”
Three of those players, Thomas, Smith and Wonnum came in as part of Muschamp’s transition class in 2016. Fennell was a holdover from the last staff, while Kinlaw was a 2016 recruit who spent a year in junior college.
This is what they’ve given the staff so far:
Kinlaw: 58 tackles, 4 1/2 sacks in 25 games, 22 starts. After working himself into shape and into the lineup in 2017, he battled injuries and still posted a strong 2018, turning down the NFL to return to school.
Wonnum: 100 tackles, 9 1/2 sacks in 31 games, 18 starts. A top backup as a freshman and breakout player as a sophomore, he saw much of his 2018 season lost to injury.
Thomas: 106 tackles, 5 1/2 sacks in 38 games, 25 starts. A contributor out of necessity, he’s grown into a reliable, versatile option inside and on the edge.
Smith: 56 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks in 27 games, six starts. Used sparingly his first two years, he blossomed into a productive interior presence last fall.
Fennell: 58 tackles, four sacks in 30 games, seven starts. Almost a starter as a redshirt freshman, he had to wait his turn before becoming an option at multiple edge spots. Coming off a torn ACL.
That group alone could be a base of a decent line before factoring in the talent behind them.
They certainly mean the team will have experience, something last year’s team could not boast. Muschamp said the team only returned 40 percent of its defensive snaps from 2017, losing reliable defensive linemen like Taylor Stallworth and Dante Sawyer. That number fell to 30 percent when Wonnum hurt his foot in the opener.
Kinlaw might take a special role in that as his ceiling is arguably higher than the rest of that line. Despite injuries, he posted 10 tackles for loss and 4 1/2 sacks. He’s well known for dropping 40-plus pounds early in his career and now is at a built 310.
“Javon is a guy, I think he’s in his best shape since he’s been at South Carolina,” Muschamp said. “He’s got a great mentality attacking this season and certainly he can be a very disruptive player.”
At that size, Kinlaw can both disrupt and provide ballast in the middle. USC will need that after the defense struggled badly against the run.
USC was also middle of the pack in getting to the quarterback, better than it had been of late, but still not creating pure havoc. That would also help in raising the turnover numbers that tumbled last fall.
“Defensively, we flat-out struggled,” Muschamp said. “We weren’t very good. Call it like it is.
“Those are five guys that are good football players that have played quality for us. We need to have those type of seniors in order for us to have the defense we need to have. We need to improve tremendously.”