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August 13, 2010

Defensive Line Looking for Second Tier

Brad Lawing knows who his defensive-line starters will be. Such is the benefit from coaching the quartet of ends Cliff Matthews and Devin Taylor with tackles Ladi Ajiboye and Travian Robertson.

But as he well knows from 2009, a strong defensive line can be short-circuited in an instant by injuries. Lawing mixed and matched throughout last year as ankles and knees gave way.

Got to have some capable backups. Got to find options, just in case.

What does he look for?

"Playmakers," he grunted.

Some are beginning to stand out.

Possibly the deepest part of South Carolina's team, the defensive line's second level is beginning to take shape. Through 11 practices, Lawing has begun to see who should blossom from a talented group behind his four starters.

At end, should Taylor or Matthews need a quick rest, the quickly improving Chaz Sutton or Byron McKnight can step in. At tackle, newcomer Byron Jerideau has made an early impact with his sheer size while holdover Melvin Ingram has proven his worth when healthy.

The starting front four may be the best D-line in the SEC. The next four, or six or eight want to get to that level as well.

"The D-line, we play all positions," McKnight said at a recent practice. "D-tackle, I look at everybody, so I learn from them. End or tackle, don't matter."

As most everybody on the line went through some kind of injury or snafu last year, everybody got a chance to play. That the Gamecocks still finished fifth in the SEC in rushing defense, part of a third-place finish for overall defense, speaks to the kind of production the backups provided.

There was some attrition, following the graduation of Nathan Pepper and the NFL leap of Clifton Geathers, but USC reloaded. Jerideau, the hulking 6-foot, 310-pound native of tiny Green Pond who came to USC by way of junior college, was signed, as was freshman J.T. Surratt.

They added to a deep crop of players including Aldrick Fordham, Chaun Gresham and Kenny Davis, while freshman tight end Corey Simmons switched to defensive end one day into camp and joined the rotation. The result has been a multitude of tall, thick, angry-looking young men who hold court on the near side of the Bluff Road practice fields.

"That's my main thing right now, trying to learn the plays and get in shape," Jerideau said. "My size and my ability to bull-rush and cause distractions along the offensive line is my strength."

The Gamecocks' defense has been stellar since defensive head Ellis Johnson arrived and they want to stay there. Under coach Steve Spurrier, the season-openers of every year have been rough (although they have all been wins); the defense feels it's its job to smooth over any uneven spots in the offense.

Last year, the defense held NC State to 133 yards and three points. Then-freshman Stephon Gilmore had a huge play, ripping the goahead touchdown away from an Wolfpack receiver in the end zone, and the game was also Taylor's coming-out party.

Southern Miss has been in the news for preaching a few words about coming to Williams-Brice Stadium on Sept. 2 and pulling the upset. Coach Larry Fedora was quoted as saying he was telling his players not to be surprised by the win.

USC's defense might have something to say about that. Hard to win if the offense can't move.

"Oh, we heard," McKnight said. "But we're just taking business as usual."



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