By Jeff Owens/Photos by Jenny Dilworth and Allen Sharpe
Ask Taylor Stallworth about giant defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw and he raises an eyebrow, delivers a sly grin and says, "You seen him?
"I stood up beside him and he made me ... (look small). That's a big boy. I feel like if he brings that presence, nobody can block him and he can be a force in this league."
The same can be said for Stallworth, the 300-pound senior who anchors South Carolina's defensive line. While Kinlaw, a 6-6, 330-pound transfer, tries to work his way into the lineup, Stallworth is a staple, having played in 30 games over the past three seasons with 18 starts.
A senior leader, Stallworth is one of the most important players on a South Carolina defense that is under pressure to step up this season. He has shined in training camp, dominating the line of scrimmage and drawing praise from teammates and coaches alike.
"Taylor, without a doubt, is our one guy who is a special guy, a SEC top-level player," Defensive Line Coach Lance Thompson says. "He needs to play really well for us and play a lot for us."
Stallworth, a fun-loving guy who always seems have a smile on his face, shrugs off such praise. He knows you are only as good as your next game, your next play really.
"There are no guaranteed spots," he says of the defensive line. "Every day we have to come in and work every day, everybody. If you are a starter right now, you have work to prove that you are a starter, and if you are a backup, you have to keep working.
"For me, I just go every day and see what I can do to better myself with my game and help the team on defense. I don't worry about all that. I just try to better myself."
Stallworth and the defense will face their next big challenge Saturday when South Carolina holds its second scrimmage of training camp at Williams-Brice Stadium at 10:30 a.m. The practice session is closed to the media and public, but head coach Will Muschamp is scheduled to meet with the media afterward.
Teammates say Stallworth is faster and stronger than last season, when he battled a shoulder injury. He says he is healthy this season and dropped his weight to about 300 pounds during the offseason.
"Last year he had the pec (injury) and the shoulder," Thompson said. "This year I think he is more healthy, and he's a smart guy. He's strong, he has good feet and plays with good pad level and plays square to the line of scrimmage. He is just a all-around pretty solid guy."
The Gamecocks are leaning on Stallworth and fellow seniors Dante Sawyer and Ulric Jones to step up this season and lead the defensive line. Depth is a concern, but Stallworth sees the young guys coming along.
"Kobe Smith has stepped up huge from last year to now," he said. "Keir Thomas, JK (Kinlaw), a big guy. We've got a lot of depth at D-line.
"I feel like every day they get better. We have a lot of young guys at each position that can help us on defense."
While the defensive coaching staff is looking for pass rushers on the edge, the play inside is just as important. Stallworth, Jones and the rest must get push in the middle, fill gaps and help stop the run.
Kinlaw, the 6-6 JUCO, could have a huge impact once he's in better shape and the coaches are comfortable unleashing him in the middle.
"We'll see, but I feel like he is going to be a great threat this year," Stallworth said.
Stallworth's biggest role on the team is helping the young players behind him learn the system and what it takes to play major-college football in the SEC. He is doing his part.
"I feel like the younger guys, if they need help with anything, new plays, we can help them out," Stallworth said. "'This is what you are doing, hey, if you don't understand this, we'll work with you.' On off days, we will go with them and watch film. We do everything we can to help them."
His coaches say he is making an impact — on the field and as a leader.
"I see guy who is coming to work every day — and we keep stressing this — coming to work every day and embracing that leadership role and pulling the young guys along with you," Linebacker Coach Mike Peterson said.
The defense has shown progress throughout training camp, players and coaches say, and is looking to take another step forward in Saturday's scrimmage.
"All around, just get better," Stallworth said of the challenge. "The run, the pass rush, defending the pass, just all around, we need to be better."
He sees the defense coming together and developing more camaraderie, and that is starting to show up on the field, he said.
"I feel like we are becoming more like a family. We are starting to bond better," he said. "We didn't have this last year … but this year we are starting to bond and play better."