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February 9, 2012

Post Signing Day: 2012 Defensive Outlook



With National Signing Day in the rear view mirror, we know the identity of most of the scholarship players comprising the 2012 South Carolina football roster. Like most years, we know who the starters will be at specific position, but the reserves are battling for the right to be No. 2. However, there will be plenty of healthy competition for starting jobs as well. Here is the outlook for the 2012 South Carolina defense:

DEFENSIVE LINE: Barring a major upset, three-quarters of the starting defensive line is set heading into spring practice. Jadeveon Clowney will be asked to take his game to the next level now that he is no longer a freshman or sharing snaps with Melvin Ingram, who is expected to be taken in the first round of the NFL Draft. Coaches want him to become an every-down player. Devin Taylor decided to forego pro football for a year in order to further his physically development and increase his odds of being taken high in 2013. Together, the 6-foot-6 Clowney and the 6-foot-7 Taylor are likely the tallest defensive end duo in the country as well as the most talented.

Chaz Sutton begins his fourth year in the USC program, and should earn a spot in the rotation as long as he remains injury-free. The big question mark is who will be the fourth defensive end since Brad Lawing likes to rotate two players at each spot to keep everybody fresh. Gerald Dixon (sidelined last season with an injury) and possibly Mason Harris could battle there. Incoming freshmen Darius English and Jhaustin Thomas will join the fray in August.

Kelcy Quarles made steady progress last season and eventually grabbed a starting spot at defensive tackle alongside Travian Robertson. Like Clowney, he is expected to play even more and make a greater impact this upcoming season. The defensive tackle spot vacated by Robertson could be the subject of an intense battle among several candidates, including Byron Jerideau, J.T. Surratt, Aldrick Fordham, Phillip Dukes, Gerald Dixon, Jr., Deon Green and Corey Robinson.

2012 DL Roster - Jadeveon Clowney (So.), Gerald Dixon (RFr.), Gerald Dixon, Jr. (RFr.), Phillip Dukes (RFr.), Darius English (Fr.), Aldrick Fordham (Sr.), Deon Green (RFr.), Mason Harris (RFr.)*, Carlos Hood (Fr.), Byron Jerideau (Sr.), Kelcy Quarles (So.), Corey Robinson (RSo.), J.T. Surratt (RSo.), Chaz Sutton (RJr.), Devin Taylor (Sr.), Jhaustin Thomas (Fr.),

* Also expected to work at outside linebacker.

LINEBACKER: This position will be the most senior-laden on the entire team with three of the four players expected to garner most of the playing time preparing for their final campaigns. Shaq Wilson is the prohibitive favorite to start at middle linebacker based on his extensive experience and knowledge of the 4-2-5 scheme preferred by new head defensive coach Lorenzo Ward, while Reginald Bowens and Quin Smith should again split snaps at outside (weakside) linebacker.

Who will be Wilson's backup? The battle will rage during the spring between senior Qua Gilchrist (appeared in three games in 2011) and promising redshirt freshman Cedrick Cooper, who impressed former defensive head Ellis Johnson last August with his physical and mental skills before the decision was made to redshirt him.

Two freshmen who also redshirted last season should get plenty of work in the spring - Angelo Watley and Edward Muldrow. Chaun Gresham has played mostly on special teams. When fall arrives, true freshman T.J. Holloman and Kaiwan Lewis will seek to earn a spot on the depth chart.

2012 LB Roster - Reginald Bowens (Sr.), Cedrick Cooper (RFr.), Chaun Gresham (Jr.), Qua Gilchrist (Sr.), TJ Holloman (Fr.), Kaiwan Lewis (Fr.), Edward Muldrow (RFr.), Quin Smith (Sr.), Angelo Watley (RFr.), Shaq Wilson (Sr.).

SPURS: The biggest concern for USC's defensive coaches is finding a replacement for Antonio Allen, a superb ballhawking defender who led USC in tackles last season and always seemed to be involved in the play. Who will be Allen's successor at spur? DeVonte Holloman got a look there last spring and history will repeat itself since the coaches know what the rising senior is capable of doing at strong safety. Holloman's best position at the next level could be outside linebacker (that's what Ellis Johnson believed), so he might stick this time around.

However, if nobody steps up at strong safety, Holloman could be moved back there to fill the role again like he was last season after the second game. Not surprisingly, USC's defense improved from that point. Will USC dare shift Holloman to a new position or keep him at the spot where he is most comfortable? Indeed, it's a dilemma for the coaches.

Another question USC must answer - do they keep Damario Jeffery at spur or move him to outside linebacker, where he faces keen competition in Bowens and Smith? Jeffery prefers to play OLB because he feels strongly that he is too big and not quick enough to play spur, but circumstances last season forced his move there.

After lining up at both safety spots during his first two years with USC, redshirt sophomore Sharrod Golightly moved to spur midway through last season and did enough to get another look this season. The newcomer is redshirt freshman Marcquis Roberts, who should see plenty of snaps in the spring. Four-star prospect Jordan Diggs joins the program this summer.

2012 Spurs Roster: Jordan Diggs (Fr.), DeVonte Holloman (Sr.)*, Damario Jeffery (Sr.), Marcquis Roberts (RFr.), Sharrod Golightly (RSo.).

* Started at strong safety in 2011.

SECONDARY: Because of the stress fractures in his foot, safety D.J. Swearinger will watch spring practice from the sidelines. But once the games start in late August, the senior from Greenwood, S.C., will be on the field. Swearinger has appeared in 40 career games with 21 starts, so sitting out the spring won't affect him.

Swearinger's absence from the gridiron, together with Holloman's potential move to spur, means numerous younger players will get abundant action at the two safety spots, including Sheldon Royster (redshirted in 2011), Brison Williams (returned from broken forearm in October) and Kadetrix Marcus (contributed on special teams in 2011). Williams was suspended for a couple of weeks in January because of an attitude issue. But he was reinstated late last week and, hopefully, has learned his lesson.

At cornerback, the biggest storyline is the return of fifth-year senior Akeem Auguste from a serious foot injury that sidelined him for all but one game last season. As a result, he redshirted and will be counted on for his leadership in 2012. He underwent surgery a while ago to insert a screw into his foot, but should be ready to go when spring practice starts. After sitting out for so long, he should be chomping at the bit to get back on the field. The coaches are counting on him to have a big year.

The enigmatic Victor Hampton showed flashes of his talent last season, and will be counted on to assume a starting role next season with Stephon Gilmore moving on to the NFL. Ahmad Christian, currently playing baseball, is projected as the third cornerback but he will first battle Hampton for the starting job. Cadarious Sanders will be involved as well.

Jimmy Legree started the first two games of the 2011 season at free safety before being benched for inconsistent play. He is expected to return to cornerback in order to boost the depth at a position that desperately needs it in the wake of the loss of three key players from 2011. Last spring, Legree impressed the coaches at cornerback, but was moved to safety for depth reasons when Holloman started the season at spur.

The secondary suffered a loss when Martay Mattox decided to transfer following a dispute with coaches over playing time. When pre-season camp arrives, five talented true freshmen hope to make their presence felt in the secondary, including four-star prospect Chaz Elder, one of the top defensive back prospects in Georgia for the 2012 recruiting cycle. Most of these players will be given a chance to contribute on special teams at the outset of their careers.

2012 DB Roster - Akeem Auguste (Sr.), Ahmad Christian (RFr.), Chaz Elder (Fr.), Kyle Fleetwood (Fr.), TJ Gurley (Fr.), Victor Hampton (RSo.), Jimmy Legree (Jr.), Rico McWilliams (Fr.), Kadetrix Marcus (So.), Chris Moody (Fr.), Sheldon Royster (RFr.), Cadarious Sanders (RSo.), D.J. Swearinger (Sr.), Brison Williams (So.).

Just because SIGNING DAY is over doesn't mean our coverage of the
big day stops. We have more analysis of USC's 2012 signing class, plus
all of our normal content on GamecockCentral.com. Don't miss a thing
with our 7-day FREE TRIAL.

D. McCallum


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