With each practice or scrimmage, freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has built his case.
Echoing the suggestion by South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier following Saturday's scrimmage, USC defensive line coach Brad Lawing hasn't ruled out the possibility of Clowney earning a starting job in time for the season-opener against East Carolina.
"Sure. I'm going to play the best players," Lawing said when asked after Monday's closed two-hour session at The Proving Grounds if Clowney could start. "There will be a bunch of them that will play that opening game. Depending on how we configure our front, we'll decide who starts. We'll see. He's getting better."
Spurrier did not talk to the media after Monday's practice.
Clowney told reporters after his dominating performance in the scrimmage that Lawing has taught him how to use his hands to get around blockers and that he was improving in that area.
Lawing agreed with that assessment.
"He's learning how to use his hands," Lawing said. "Most kids coming out of high school, that's the one thing they don't know how to do. But he's gotten better and better with it. Again, they play off of talent in high school. But when they get to college, you have to play with fundamentals. He's gotten better with that."
Lawing said three characteristics have accelerated Clowney's development during preseason camp: 1) His willingness to be coached; 2) His humility and 3) His tremendous competitive drive.
"He wants to be coached," Lawing said. "He comes up to me and asks about things. That's one of the reasons he came here. I told him that I wasn't going to coddle him and he was going to get coached. He wants that. It's very impressive to me that a guy with the accolades he got really wants to learn."
Clowney again displayed his extraordinary physical skills on Monday, more than 48 hours after leading the defensive charge in the scrimmage.
"He has tremendous acceleration. When he mentally sees what he needs to see, he can really accelerate to the football," Lawing said. "I haven't taught him that. That's something God-given. That's mommy and daddy right there. But he'll play physical, too."
Lawing discounted the defensive line's impressive showing in Saturday's scrimmage by pointing out his unit faced USC's second-team offensive line for most of the snaps.
"We scrimmaged our younger guys and we're kind of thin in the offensive line's second group, so you really can't gauge it by that," Lawing said. "Whenever you're going against the best players, that's what you gauge improvement on."
At the opposite defensive end position, Devin Taylor has rebounded from a slow start to preseason camp and is gathering momentum with the first game less than two weeks away.
"He started out kind of slow and I challenged him about a week ago," Lawing said. "I said, 'You need to pick it up and make some plays.' He did. Devin is a good football player. He doesn't appear to be running fast, but he's gaining ground the whole time. He's so long (6-foot-7) and he can run and jump (38-inch vertical leap; state triple-jump champion as a senior at Beaufort High School)."
With Clowney, Taylor, Travian Robertson and Melvin Ingram set to see significant action along the defensive front, the key question is who will start at the defensive tackle spot next to Robertson, a fifth-year senior.
It's been a four- or five-way race for the duration of preseason camp and Lawing hasn't declared a winner among a group that includes Aldrick Fordham, Byron Jerideau, Kelcy Quarles, J.T. Surratt and Corey Robinson.
"We're building a lot of depth," Lawing said. "All those guys competing bring different things to the table. (Who plays) depends on who we play. There is a lot of competition. Right now, I'm trying to get four guys ready to play that opening game. If you're number five on that list, you don't get the reps.
"That's the reality for this time of the year. When you start getting to within a week-and-a-half of the game, you have to whittle down who is going to play because you have a game plan you have to teach and you have to make sure they understand it."
Who is leading the battle for the starting job? Lawing offered few answers, saying only, "I'll let you know the day we played."
Freshman defensive tackle Phillip Dukes returned to practice on Monday after sitting out 11 days with a high ankle sprain. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said earlier that Dukes will redshirt this season at his request in order to get bigger and stronger, and gain a better understanding of the defensive playbook.
Unlike defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach Lorenzo Ward, Lawing has few concerns about depth. The cornerback position took another hit on Monday when Ward revealed freshman Martay Mattox has been suspended for the opener for academic reasons dating to the spring.
With Akeem Auguste's status still uncertain (he wore a yellow jersey on Monday) and Victor Hampton suspended for the first three games due to academic reasons, the cornerback position is a question mark beyond certain starters Stephon Gilmore and C.C. Whitlock.
"They're not going to not play the game because we don't have the depth we're supposed to have because guys are out," Ward said. "We'll get the ones ready to play that are here. If Ahmad (Christian) has to play, he'll play. I feel comfortable if we had to put him into a ballgame in a situation. I think we'll be fine."
Auguste did some "running and maybe some cutting" for the USC medical staff on Monday and Ward was scheduled to meet with head athletic trainer Clint Haggard to discuss Auguste's situation.
If Auguste is able to play in the opener, the two-deep depth chart is firm: Gilmore and Marty Markett at boundary corner with Whitlock and Auguste at field corner. But if Auguste can't play, the fourth spot is a "coin toss," Ward said.
Ward said he wants Auguste back at practice by Wednesday when preparations formally begin for the East Carolina game to assure he'll be fully prepared to play and compete for a starting job. However, even if he doesn't return until later in the week, he could still play.
For the moment, the starting secondary for the ECU game shapes up this way: Gilmore (boundary) and Whitlock (field) at cornerback with Jimmy Legree (free) and D.J. Swearinger (strong) at safety.
Ward hopes a simplified scheme will avoid the high number of assignment busts the Gamecocks experienced in 2010. The secondary didn't surrender any deep balls in Saturday's scrimmage, a "positive" in the eyes of Ward.
"We're trying to be smarter as coaches and giving them simple stuff to make adjustments," Ward said. "We can help that. We've been more sound. We have given up some deep passes, but we understand who we're going up against based on the coverage that's called. Guys have had another year in the system and they understand what we want. It goes hand-in-hand."
-- Quarterback Connor Shaw returned to practice on Monday, five days after dislocating a thumb in a scrimmage.
-- Even though he could play in the opener because of the potential lack of bodies, Christian said he will likely redshirt in 2011. "There's a chance (I'll play), but we're actually talking about the redshirting thing right now," Christian said.
-- Lawing said both of the Gerald Dixon brothers, whose father played for USC in the early 1990s, will redshirt in 2011. Gerald Dixon, a teammate if Clowney's at South Pointe High, has been slowed by a stress fracture in his leg.
-- With a possible shortage of secondary players for the opener, Ward said he has "discussed" with Spurrier about moving Bruce Ellington over for the game to help out the depth situation. However, Ward acknowledged the chances of that happening are slim. "They have a plan for Bruce on offense," Ward said. "As the head coach, if he sees we need him, I'm sure he will give him to us."
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