By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe and Jenny Dilworth
D.J. Wonnum can hear Will Muschamp's voice in his sleep.
"You've got to get to that quarterback, you've got to get to that quarterback," Wonnum says, echoing Muschamp's command.
Getting to the quarterback is a big key for the South Carolina defense this season, and Wonnum is being counted on as one of the Gamecock's primary pass rushers. It's a challenge Muschamp and Defensive Coordinator Travaris Robinson issued throughout the offseason and reiterate every day in training camp.
"It drives us," Wonnum said. "I feel like it will be a lot better than last year."
Wonnum, a 6-4, 251-pound sophomore from Stone Mountain, Ga., is expected to start at the Buck position on a defensive line with seniors Dante Sawyer, Taylor Stallworth and Ulric Jones. Wonnum, Sawyer and a host of young players are being counted on to get to the quarterback.
Wonnum, who has switched from No. 92 to No. 8 this season, was a pleasant surprise last year. He played in every game and led all freshmen with 32 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks. He returns this season faster and stronger and has already been impressive in camp.
"Dennis Wonnum is a guy who has really, really impressed me the first three days," Robinson said. "He's very good with his hands and he's a very conscientious kid. He knows what to do and he knows how to do it.
"He's a really, really good player and a really good person … and those are the kind of guys I like."
Last year was an eye-opening experience for Wonnum, who had a breakout game against East Carolina with four solo tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack. He finished the season with four tackles against Clemson to earn All-SEC Freshman honors by Athlon's.
"I didn't expect to play as much, but I played a lot," he said. "I feel educated. I'm learning more about what I can expect after my freshman year."
What's the biggest lesson he learned?
"Get in the weight room," he said. "I got hit a couple of times and I felt like I needed to get stronger. I have gotten a lot stronger, so it should carry over to the games."
Wonnum and all the defensive ends and linebackers also worked hard on their speed and explosion off the line of scrimmage. Wonnum believes he's made progress in that area as well.
"The get-off is key. You've got to get off the ball," he said. "Your moves and how you react is going to follow after you get off the ball."
Senior linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams sees Wonnum developing into an elite pass rusher.
"He's a technician. He has great hands, great feet, great size and I just can't wait to see him play this year," Allen-Williams said. "A lot of people don't really know about him but they are going to get to know about him."
While the Gamecock offense has gotten a lot of hype during the offseason, the defense is the team's biggest concern. Those questions motivate young players like Wonnum.
"It pushes us," he said. "Coach is depending on us, so we have to do whatever we have to do to get better, to get it right.
"We know the spotlight is on our back. We've got to be ready."