Sometimes, having to select the best fruit from a bountiful harvest is a positive thing.
Case in point - South Carolina defensive line coach Brad Lawing. With the season opener 18 days away, he is still trying to pick among a basketful of candidates to fill a number of spots along the defensive front, particularly the defensive tackle spot where a number of players have thrown their hat into the run.
"I'm getting there," Lawing said late Monday night following USC's two-hour practice session at the Proving Grounds. "I still haven't decided. "We'll go right up to game week. I'm starting to get an idea of who can do what and, mentally, what is too much for somebody. There is still a lot of competition for what we're trying to do."
And that intense competition will be on display again Tuesday night when the Gamecocks conduct their second official scrimmage of preseason camp at Williams-Brice Stadium. The session is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m.
The defensive tackle spot has three spots vacant in the projected four-man rotation. Obviously, Travian Robertson will fill one of those. The other three? Wide open.
But after experiencing a couple of lean years upon returning to Columbia in 2006 for his second coaching stint with the Gamecocks, Lawing appreciates the vast arsenal at his disposal now.
"We're trying to develop depth right now," Lawing said. "You can't ever have enough, I guess. I've played some years with three tackles and three ends. You can't complain about it. We have some bodies in there that can become good players for us."
Is this the deepest and most talented defensive line Lawing has coached at USC?
"Yeah, probably is," Lawing replied. "It's the most players I've had. When I got here, I had a fullback and some linebackers and green alligators and long neck geese."
Byron Jerideau has lost a bunch of weight (40 pounds) and improved greatly his knowledge of the defensive scheme. As a result, the 318-pound Colleton County native is making a serious run at a starting job at defensive tackle.
Right now, his main competition appears to be junior Aldrick Fordham, who weighs almost 40 pounds less than Jerideau but relies on superior technique and quickness to free himself from blockers and make plays.
"Aldrick is a very smart football player," Lawing said. "He understands the game and plays with the proper leverage. All the fundamentals that make you a good player, he's good at those. He's undersized a little bit, but I've played with undersized defensive tackles, and that's OK. If you can play the game, you can play it."
Being rock solid in his fundamentals is the key for Fordham staying on the field, Lawing said.
"If he didn't play fundamentals, he would just be average," Lawing said. "He has had his hand on the ground since day one with me."
Fordham said he relies on his quickness and consistent technique to win his battles inside.
"I try to stay low, get lower than they do and hit them before they hit me and try not to catch them," Fordham said. "Because if I catch them, their weight takes over."
Lawing searched for a way to take full advantage of Kelcy Quarles' array of skills, and he may have found it by having the freshman rotate between defensive tackle and defensive end. The Greenwood, S.C., native took snaps at end for the first time on Monday night.
Redshirt freshman J.T. Surratt is involved in the battle as well. He sat out last year after suffering a shoulder injury, but has exhibited significant progress from a year ago when he stepped onto the USC campus for the first time. But has there been enough growth to gain a spot in the defensive tackle rotation?
Phillip Dukes, the most likely newcomer to play in 2011, will redshirt. He was already leaning in that direction and last week's ankle injury that could keep him on the shelf for a while firmed up the decision.
True freshman tackle Gerald Dixon Jr. (Northwestern) is beginning to impress the coaches and teammates with his talents, though it could prove difficult to break into the rotation this season if everybody stays healthy.
Fordham said Dixon Jr. reminds him of former USC defensive tackle Nathan Pepper, who played for the Gamecocks from 2005-2009.
"I call him Junior Pepp," Fordham said. "His footwork is very good."
The rotation at defensive end doesn't face the same uncertainty. We already know three of the four combatants, and the decision to play Quarles at both end and tackle could produce the fourth, though Chaz Sutton and Byron McKnight could have something to say about that.
Right now, nobody on the USC defense is playing better than Melvin Ingram, who had a superb practice on Monday night, drawing raves from coaches and players.
"I expect him to have a great senior year," Lawing said. "He's worked hard the last five years and he's learned how to play ball. He plays with game speed out here in practice. He has improved tremendously. I expect a great year from him."
Ingram is regarded as one of the best pure athletes on the teams. Two fellow defensive linemen uttered the same word when describing Ingram - freak.
Remember, he arrived at USC in 2007 as a highly touted linebacker, but within a year or so had moved to the defensive line. Ingram initially resisted the move, but eventually grew to accept it. Now, he's all in.
"He was a linebacker and running back in high school," Lawing said. "And he's just gotten better and better and better. He fought putting his hand on the ground for a couple of years. When he finally said, 'This is who I am,' he has gotten better and he's bought into it. He's a tremendous player for us."
Is Ingram motivated by what he possibly perceives as a slight from the media and fans because so much attention has been given to Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor? No.
"Melvin is not motivated by that stuff," Lawing said. "Melvin is motivated because he likes playing football. He told me that if you gave him a Gatorade, he would play hard. Here, he has Gatorade all the time."
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