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July 17, 2014

Surratt: 'We're not going to fall off'



HOOVER, Ala. - For many teams, losing three starters from the defensive line - including the No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick - would be a catastrophe.

But not at South Carolina, USC defensive tackle J.T. Surratt asserts.

South Carolina has had one of the SEC's best defenses over the past three seasons, anchored by a defensive line that sent names like Melvin Ingram, Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, among others, to the NFL.

But the departure of Clowney, defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles and defensive end Chaz Sutton after last season has left a major question mark hanging over the position as the Gamecocks prepare for the upcoming season.

Surratt, the lone returning starter on that line, came to SEC Media Days on Tuesday to ease those concerns.

"For the most part, I really just want to get out here and explain to everybody how we're a young team, but we've got guys that's ready to step up here and take roles," said the fifth-year senior. "That's what this whole thing was about, was just to let everybody know that South Carolina is not going to fall off. We got young guys, but they're hungry just like the rest of us."

When Clowney, Quarles and Sutton left, they took with them 121 combined games of experience.

Clowney's departure alone would have been worrisome, though completely expected. The No. 1 recruit-turned-No. 1 draft pick was a consensus All-American as a sophomore, when he also won the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end.

South Carolina will miss his impact, as well as that of Quarles and Sutton, who combined for 12.5 sacks and 22 tackles for loss last season.

"We had a great defensive line last year, but I don't believe we're going to fall off," said Surratt, adding that the Gamecocks could have as much, if not more, talent this year as they did last season. "I believe we should have enough people to do what we need to do."

Replacing Quarles at the defensive tackle spot opposite Surratt, who started every game and logged 33 tackles in 2013, should be simple. The Gamecocks have several talented defensive tackles waiting in the wings, including Phillip Dukes and Gerald Dixon Jr. - both of whom were in the rotation last season.

South Carolina also has another talented option at defensive tackle in junior college transfer Abu Lamin, a 6-foot-4, 302-pound redshirt sophomore who enrolled at USC this spring.

Replacing Clowney and Sutton on the ends could prove more difficult. Gerald Dixon and Darius English are the favorites to start in those spots.

Dixon played in all 13 games last season, logging 17 tackles, including 1.5 for loss. English also played in every game, making 19 tackles - 2.5 of them for loss.

Many pundits doubt Dixon and English - or anyone on South Carolina's depth chart at defensive end - can fill the shoes of a once-in-a-generation talent like Clowney and a veteran contributor in Sutton.

Surratt is not one of them.

"We lost some big guys, but at the same time, we've got some guys that can make a name for themselves," Surratt said. "We have people that are stepping up already and filling those leadership roles."

That confidence is common in South Carolina's locker room this offseason, Sutton said. But even after three straight 11-win seasons and New Year's Day bowl victories and five straight victories over archrival Clemson, there's no sense of complacency, Surratt said.

The Gamecocks have treated summer workouts as a precious opportunity to get better, rather than a painful obligation.

"Everybody has a hunger inside them," Surratt said. "Everybody is out there ready to eat and get out there and just have some fun."

South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier credits the former two-star prospect from Winstom-Salem, North Carolina, with helping to lead those efforts.

"J.T. Surratt probably will be one of our senior captains when we do voting in mid-season," said Spurrier. "He's played a lot. I think he started about all the games last year. He's a good, solid inside player.

"Defensive end is a position that some guys have got to come around and play. But J.T.'s a good player, excellent leader. He should have a big season."

Surratt has embraced his leadership role in his fifth year with the team. He received the program's Everyday Attitude Award at the 2014 Garnet and Black Spring Game this spring.

"I have to step up and be a leader," Surratt said. "Still be a cheerleader, but at the same time, show the leadership and let the guys know we've still got enough time to do what we have to do. I have to be able to keep the hunger in them and have to be ready to go at all times."

Surratt said he's taking it upon himself to make sure his teammates on the line understand their potential and their importance to South Carolina's success this season.

"I have to step up and let these guys know that we have to be great," Surratt said. "Football starts up front, so I'm telling these guys, even as we go on through the summer, we can be good. We're not going to fall off at all. We're going to keep pushing. We're going to keep doing what we've got to do to get to the next phase of our offseason.

"We're going to be good this year."



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