**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Juan Blas**
Ever since he took the job as head coach of the South Carolina football team, Will Muschamp hasn't been shy about what needs to change on the defense. For one, the defensive backs needed to become much more physical on the outside.
However, most importantly the Gamecocks needed to create some sort of pass rush along the defensive line. That's been a concern over the past three years since the loss of Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles, Devin Taylor and others.
After 25 sacks during the 11-win 2013 season, that number dropped drastically to 14 in 2014. There's been improvement over the last two years with 20 sacks in 2015 and 21 last season, but the Gamecocks are nowhere near where Muschamp wants them to be.
The biggest problem is the inability to create pressure on opposing quarterbacks with four down linemen, which is a must in major college football. With 2017 spring practice in the books, Muschamp saw some improvement, but some of freshmen that are enrolling in the summer will have to make an immediate impact.
"Defensively we've got some unknowns going into the fall, which is concerning for a coach as far as some players who aren't on campus are going to have to help us," Muschamp said. "That's not always good leaving spring ball, but that is what it is. We've got to continue to improve up front with four guys rushing the quarterback. We've got to continue to work through some of those things."
Prior to his Spurs Up meeting in Lancaster on May 2, Muschamp announced that defensive linemen Dexter Wideman and Stephon Taylor would transfer, meaning the remaining linemen and incoming freshmen will have even more pressure on them.
The Gamecocks also lose the services of Darius English, who had a team-high nine sacks a year ago. The leading returners in that department are Bryson Allen-Williams, a linebacker, and Keir Thomas, who plays the BUCK position, a hybrid between a defensive end and linebacker. Both of those players had just two sacks apiece last season.
There's still promise along the defensive line with players like D.J. Wonnum and Dante Sawyer, and the Gamecocks signed five defensive lineman, and all of them can make an impact. M.J. Webb, Javon Kinlaw and Brad Johnson are three particular players who could easily make an immediate impact.
Muschamp shared a message he relayed to the incoming prospects after the annual Garnet and Black spring game on April 1.
"You've got a great opportunity, so take advantage of it," Muschamp recalled. "I didn't promise you anything. I promised you an opportunity. If you practice well, you'll play, if you're the best at your position, you'll start. We have to have some guys come in and make a difference on our football team, whether that's providing depth or starting."
The defense overall will receive a tremendous boost in the upcoming season with the return of Skai Moore. The senior missed all of last year with a neck injury, and is South Carolina's best defensive player after leading the team in tackles his first three years.
His impact was felt all throughout spring practice.
"Every day he was a factor in practice," quarterback Jake Bentley said of Moore. "It got to a point where a read told us to throw it here, but Skai was there. He's just so smart. He's able to take his coaching and tweak it a little bit because he's so smart. He's a great player, and it's hard to go against him."
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the defense entering the fall, Muschamp is confident his team can put it together. There was improvement shown on that side of the ball last season, and with another year of experience in Travaris Robinson's system, the players will be more comfortable this year.
The summer will be huge for the players to continue to work hard in the weight room and in field workouts with each other. The coaches aren't there to make sure the players get work done, so it's up to the student-athletes to show how much they want to see South Carolina become a football power again.
"That's where the leadership of your football team takes over," Muschamp said. "Defensively, I feel good about it. We need to continue to have more guys step up with accountability of the things it takes to be successful. I certainly think that they will. I don't have any reason to believe they won't."