By Willie T. Smith III/Photo by Allen Sharpe
Ulric Jones and his teammates on the South Carolina defensive front have heard the whispers — make that shouts.
Most college football analysts are yelling from the rooftops that if the Gamecocks are to have a successful 2017 season, the defensive line will have to produce.
South Carolina's returning linemen combined for only 16 tackles for loss, of which just 5.5 were sacks, last season.
Carolina coach Will Muschamp has been looking for ways to help the unit improve in both areas, while finding a way to stop the run.
Senior starters Dante Sawyer, Ulric Jones and Taylor Stallworth have received the message.
“I just said they need to play well for us to play well defensively,” Muschamp said. “That’s something we struggled with consistently is stopping the run against good people. In order to stop the run, you need your senior leaders to step up and play well on the line of scrimmage. We just need for those guys to play well.”
The group understands it is viewed as a team weakness by most outside the Gamecocks locker room. It has been a huge topic of discussion.
“Every time you turn on the TV, every time we read an article: “The D-Line is a question mark,” said Jones. “This ain’t 2016, it’s 2017 — a new team, new outlook."
In an attempt to put more heat on the quarterback, Defensive Coordinator Travaris Robinson has been giving practice reps at the “Buck” position to senior linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams and sophomore defensive end D.J. Wonnum.
"You got to get to that quarterback, you got to get to that quarterback,” Wonnum says Muschamp has preached to the unit. “It drives us a lot. We have (been doing) extra work together. I feel like it will be a lot better than last year.”
Wonnum had a solid freshman season, collecting 32 tackles, including 3.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks.
“He is very good with his hands,” Robinson said of Wonnum. “He’s a very conscientious kid. He knows what to do. He knows how to do it. He’s a really good player, a really good person.”
Another player who could help with the pass rush is sophomore Shameik Blackshear, who has missed time the last two years with injuries.
“He’s a lot stronger, because he’s had a year of lifting, where he missed it last year,” Muschamp said. “There’s no doubt his body has changed. He’s up over 260 pounds. He’s gotten stronger, and anytime you gain more strength and you gain better change of direction and flexibility, you gain confidence in what you’re trying to do.
“That’s certainly going to help him. He’s just got to be a consistent playmaker for us, that’s what it comes down to. We evaluate practice, and how you practice is how you’re going to play in the game.”
Robinson also believes junior college transfer Javon Kinlaw has an opportunity to help bolster the squad’s effort to stop the run. Kinlaw, a Charleston native, is one of the team's biggest linemen at 6-6, 326.
“(Kinlaw) is big,” smiled Robinson. “He’s really big. He can take up two blocks. That’s the one thing, he’s somebody who can hold the point (of attack). Last year we got the ball run down our throats a little bit. We just couldn’t hang in there because we didn’t have the girth. He provides the girth.”
The front four understands its importance to the Gamecocks success. There is nothing the defensive front can do to prove it will be up to the task until the season begins. For now, it just continues to work in preparation for what they believe will become redemption.
“We knew that was coming from the jump,” Sawyer said. “From last year to this year, we’re just ready to improve with the work we’ve done throughout the summer and the offseason. We’re just ready to show everybody.”
“We can do great things as a unit," Jones said. “We feel like we have the pieces to be good. We have the pieces to be great. We’ve got the pieces to come together and do what everyone in this country thinks we won’t do.”