Javon Kinlaw was so spent from chasing Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm that he didn’t even see defensive back Israel Mukuamu’s game-changing pick-6 against the Bulldogs Saturday.
With Kinlaw bearing down on Fromm just before halftime, the Georgia quarterback heaved a weak pass to the left sideline that Mukuamu picked off and returned for a touchdown to put the Gamecocks up 17-10. It turned out to be the play of the game in South Carolina’s 20-17 upset over No. 3 Georgia.
“I saw him but I was so tired it didn’t really register until I got to the sideline and looked at the scoreboard,” Kinlaw said. “I was like, ‘when did we we score?’”
Kinlaw, who had four tackles and a sack in the game, nearly got another one on the play, forcing Fromm to throw an ill-advised pass.
“I thought he was throwing it away,” he said. “I just let Spiderman do his thing.”
“Spiderman” would be Mukuamu, who had three interceptions and was named national and SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance. Kinlaw, who has emerged as one of the best defensive players in the country, was named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week and was named to the AP’s first-team Midseason All-American team.
The play of Kinlaw and the entire defensive line was a huge key in the win over Georgia. The line has had two strong performances in a row in back-to-back SEC wins over Kentucky and Georgia. South Carolina had four sacks and held Kentucky to 212 yards of total offense in a 24-7 win. Against Georgia, the Gamecocks had three sacks, six tackles for loss and held the Bulldogs’ offense to its lowest point total this season.
The defensive front dominated Georgia’s vaunted offensive line, allowing linebackers Ernest Jones, T.J. Brunson and Sherrod Greene to roam free and slow Georgia’s explosive running game. Jones, Brunson and Greene combined to make 27 tackles, while the defensive line made 26.
“Those guys, they are monsters,” Jones said of the defensive front. “They have been playing their butts off, and it’s been good to see. They have been setting up a lot of plays for me, making my job a lot easier. Every time I make a play it’s because of them. They are doing their jobs and drawing so much attention, it’s hard to stop those guys up front.”
“Those guys are playing lights out,” Brunson said. “They are physical, striking up front, setting the line of scrimmage and they are being very disruptive, and it makes playing linebacker a lot easier when those guys are getting push up front and making things happen.”
Head coach Will Muschamp has praised the play of Kinlaw, defensive tackle Kobe Smith and defensive end D.J. Wonnum, all seniors, for setting the tone for a strong defensive line.
“I think that Kobe and Javon have both been very consistent. I think Dennis Wonnum has been very consistent, and we've got to continue to come on with the other guys,” he said. “You know, Aaron [Sterling is] playing well, J.J. [Enagbare], Danny Fennell played well Saturday. The progress that Rick Sandidge and Zacch Pickens have made, I've been very impressed with.”
Center Donell Stanley, a sixth-year senior and three-year starter, has played against some great defensive lines in the SEC. He says South Carolina’s is among the best he has seen.
“I think our D-Line can compete with any O-Line in the country,” he said. “The guys we have are good, they are fast, they are strong, they are big. We’ve got a helluva defensive line.”
The key is Kinlaw, a two-year starter, who has emerged as a potential first-round NFL Draft pick. His ability to take on double teams and disrupt offenses has drawn from NFL scouts and draft experts and been a catalyst for South Carolina’s much-improved defense.
“He’s amazing. That guy is good, he’s real good,” Jones said.
Kinlaw, 6-6 and 310 pounds, has dropped nearly 60 pounds since transferring from Jones Community College in Mississippi. In two years, he has sculpted his body into an intimidating presence that commands a double team and poses all sorts of problems for offensive lines.
“Just working. Just been working and working. Every day,” Kinlaw said. “Just working hard to improve myself and make myself better on and off the field. It’s kinda paying off now.”
Kinlaw credits the offseason work by him and the other defensive linemen for their improvement this season.
“We had a big offseason with our strength coach,” he said. “He really tested us mentally, more mentally than physically. He would do things to try to get us uncomfortable and just try to let us know that we ain’t going to die. He really broke us down and rebuilt us, reshaped us, especially me.”
Against Georgia, Kinlaw played the most snaps of his career. Muschamp said at one point he refused to come out of the game, so he told his defensive staff to leave him in.
“The best players have to play,” Kinlaw said. “Me, I just want to be out there all the time. That’s just how I am. That’s the kind of guy I am.”
Muschamp has praised Kinlaw’s work ethic and commitment. He is most impressed, though, with his leadership and the example he sets off the field. He has emerged as the leader of the defensive line and has taken young players like Sandidge and Pickens under his wing.
“It starts at practice and how guys prepare in the film room, and that's the thing that I've seen Javon take his game to the next level as far as off-the-field preparation,” he said. “Nutrition, eating the right way, working out in the weight room, in the film room watching film, studying his opponent. Coming in to us on a Monday, and saying, ‘Hey, man, I really like the match-up here.’
“When you get that kind of back-and-forth from a player, that's really important. And when a young player can see that and see the buy-in of what it takes to be a really good player, it's not just about ability and it's not just about talent. It takes a lot of things off the field to be successful in our league, and that's where, to me, he's made the next step.”
Muschamp has also praised the performance and leadership of Smith, who he said played the best game of his career at Georgia.
“For those players to set the right example of the right way to do things is huge in your program when you start talking in terms of culture and tradition,” he said. “And to be able to see those things instead of a coach saying it, and a player says it, it means a lot more.”
To Kinlaw and Smith, the defensive front seven has a different mindset that the group that struggled at times last season.
“The chemistry we have on the D-line, we are a lot closer. We rely on each other,” Smith said.
“Mindset. It’s just everybody’s mindset,” Kinlaw said. “We’re playing for one common goal, just get the W.”