Aaron Sterling may not be the strongest or most experienced or most physically imposing defensive lineman in the SEC — let along his own team — but the South Carolina junior has produced like one of the best.
There are no players, in the entire conference, with more sacks than Sterling, and there’s only one player, Gamecock D.J. Wonnum, who has more tackles for loss.
“He’s slippery. That’s what he does. He’ll be finessing them guys out there,” South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw said of Sterling. “He’s doing his thing. People always try to knock him because of his size.
“But his heart, he got a heart of a giant.”
“I feel like a sack could be a game changer, because that changes up the whole mindset of the offensive coordinator,” Sterling said Tuesday. “If you get a sack on first down, he’s got to change up his whole mindset on that drive, and that drive could affect the whole game.”
Sterling currently ranks tied for the SEC lead with six sacks and sits tied for second with nine tackles for loss. This past Saturday against Vanderbilt he his first career multi-sack game, with two, and a week before that had a career high seven tackles.
He has 29 tackles (nine for loss), three quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and fumble recovery this season.
“I’m just trying to help my team win, and I know getting to the quarterback can win you games,” Sterling said. “If the quarterback can’t really throw the ball and he can be affected the whole game, it’s hard for him to throw accurately.”
As a unit, South Carolina’s defense has 19 sacks, tied for sixth most in the conference, and features the only trio of players — Sterling (6), Kinlaw (5) and Wonnum (4.5) — with four or more sacks.
“It’s not really motivation or competition, it’s just whoever makes the play makes the play,” Kinlaw said. “When your number gets called, you make your play.”
Sterling credited first-year defensive line coach John Scott Jr. and outside linebackers coach Mike Peterson as major reasons for the unit’s success. He
“We’re together as a d-line,” he said. “When you’re together as a unit, you play for each other. So it’s a different feeling out there when you’re out there with your boys.”
Added the defensive end when asked about his sack total, “It’s a good accomplishment, but I couldn’t do it without the other guys on the field. I’ve got 10 other players I’m playing with, so I really thank those guys being out there with me, helping me achieve that.”
Sterling — who had just one sack last year and three for his career entering this season — also credited Kinlaw, at 6-6, 310 pounds, Wonnum, at 6-5, 260 pounds, and defensive tackle Kobe Smith, at 6-2, 300 pounds, for taking on double teams.
“That’s a big factor, because a lot of guys can’t take on double teams like they do,” Sterling said. “And they do it on a consistent basis.”
Those players taking on double teams has benefited Sterling especially because of his — for SEC defensive line standards — undersized 6-1, 250-pound frame.
“Aaron plays hard,” Gamecock linebacker Ernest Jones said. “… I’m one to say size doesn’t matter. And that definitely speaks in his case. No matter his size, he is able to do what the bigger guys can do.”
“I’ve got heart,” Sterling said. “And I ain’t going to let you just maul me. That’s really about it. Leverage and heart. Speed.”
Before every snap, Sterling makes sure to find where running backs and tight ends are and adjusts his mindset from there. He has to be one step ahead because of his size.
“His feet never stop,” South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp said. “And that’s critical, especially if you get stoned earlier in the down to continue your feet moving. His long-arm is outstanding to get people off of him, because he is, not necessarily the tallest guy, but he does have long arms and is able to get guys off of him.
“And generally he’s a better athlete than most of the guys he’s rushing against inside.”
The coach was asked on Tuesday if, coming into this season, he expected Sterling to have the statistical success he has had this season.
“I wouldn’t have not anticipated it,” he said. “Certainly I felt we’ve got some other guys who maybe, coming into the year, had a little more attention.
“[But] Aaron has done a really good job in our Rabbits package of rushing inside. You would not look at his body and think that he’d be a very effective guy inside, but we worked that in training camp and we felt like he was a very good option. He was one of our four best rushers.”
With Sterling performing at peak level, Kinlaw and Wonnum doing what they do, Smith taking on double teams and young tackles Rick Sandidge and Zacch Pickens coming along, South Carolina features one of the SEC’s all-around best lines.
Kinlaw, a senior, agreed when asked if this was the best unit he has been a part of.
“It’s the mindset, man,” he said. “We are just so locked in and so focused. There are so many chances and opportunities to make plays out there because we have some pass rushers.”
— Jeff Owens contributed reporting for this article.