By Jeff Owens/Photos by Jenny Dilworth and Allen Sharpe
With eight seniors returning, Will Muschamp feels good about his first-team defense.
But he admits he's a bit concerned about several freshmen and newcomers who are being counted on to provide depth and play critical snaps.
"(They) still haven’t lined up front of 80,000 people yet," Muschamp said. "But I like the ability."
The Gamecocks return six starters on defense as well as others who played last season. But five key backups on the depth chart are first-year players, including two true freshmen. Other young players are also expected to get playing time.
The defensive line is stocked with seniors and returners who played last season, but junior-college transfer Javon Kinlaw is a key backup expected to make an impact. Others, like freshmen Aaron Sterling and Brad Johnson, could also see playing time.
Seniors Skai Moore and Bryson Allen-Williams and sophomore T.J. Brunson anchor the linebacking group, but freshman Sherrod Greene and transfer Eldridge Thompson will back up Brunson and Moore.
The secondary features four returning starters, including three seniors, but true freshman Jamyest Williams will start at nickel while junior-college transfer Keisean Nixon is expected to play at safety. Freshman Tayvn is also expected to play once he returns from injury.
Though the Gamecocks are thin at linebacker, Muschamp likes what he has seen from Greene and Thompson.
"I’ve got confidence in Eldridge Thompson and Sherrod Greene, two guys that have continued to progress through camp in a very positive manner," he said. "Those guys are going to play. I’m excited about seeing both of those guys playing on Saturday."
The defensive coaching staff has worked on schemes where Greene and Thompson are not on the field at the same time, or are on the field with Moore and Brunson "to make sure they have a calming effect there."
Williams, the top recruit in the 2017 class, has been impressive throughout training camp and earned a starting job at the nickel spot. He also will be a key backup to corners JaMarcus King and Rashad Fenton.
"The number one talent he has is his competitive edge," Muschamp said. "The guy goes and competes every snap and he goes out to practice and practices the right way, the way you’re supposed to practice. He’s a bright young man, he continues to learn (and) the more snaps he continues to take, the game’s going to continue to slow down for him.
"I’ve been extremely proud of how he’s come in here and worked. … He’s enhanced his chances by how he’s played."
Nixon, who missed spring practice and was late for training camp after transferring from junior college, is also expected to play a key role in the secondary once he has more time learning the defense.
"We put a lot on our safeties, and he’s learning that right now. He’s going through that process," Muschamp said. "He’s going to be a very big asset to our football team this year. … I’m excited about him. I’m glad he’s in our program."
Up front, the Gamecocks need Kinlaw to play a key role at defensive tackle. At 6-6, 330 pounds, he has the size to make a big impact behind senior starters Taylor Stallworth and Ulric Jones.
"I think Javon’s progressed very well. He works extremely hard at it," Muschamp said. "A guy that’s as big as he is, the biggest thing that concerns you is pad level. He’s got to get his pads down in some situations. But I’ve been extremely pleased with Javon, a guy that’s really exceeded my expectation coming in."
Defensive ends Dante Sawyer and Keir Thomas will also slide inside on occasions, possibly open the door for Sterling and redshirt sophomore Shameik Blackshear, who has battled injuries, to see time at defensive end. Muschamp and other coaches have praised Sterling throughout camp.
"Aaron Sterling’s obviously a guy that’s going to figure in at end," Muschamp said. "Dante (Sawyer) and Keir (Thomas) are guys that are very versatile for us. They can rush inside for us and will, situationally, be inside players for us, which provides opportunities for Aaron and Shameik outside."
While Muschamp admits he's concerned about playing so many newcomers and young players, he says has confidence in the ones who will be on the field when the season starts.
"We wouldn’t put them on the field if we didn’t have confidence in them," he said.