By the second half the Belk Bowl last December, South Carolina’s depleted secondary was a complete mess.
With seniors Rashad Fenton and Steven Montac on the sideline, the Gamecocks were down to three freshmen, a walk-on and a running back in the 28-0 loss to Virginia.
Those three freshmen are sophomores now and expected to lead a much deeper and much more talented secondary. Led by corners Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu, some believe the secondary is now the strength of the defense, with the potential to be one of the best DB groups in the SEC.
“I think we can be the best, because we have put in the work,” said Horn, who made the SEC All-Freshman team last year. “Now we have to go put the product on the field and do it on game day.”
Horn became just the seventh freshman since 2009 to start a season opener last year. He started 10 of the 11 games he played in and had 45 tackles and eight pass breakups, second on a team that had three senior defensive backs.
Horn can’t wait to return to the field Saturday — the same field where the Gamecocks lost to Virginia — as South Carolina opens against North Carolina at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium.
“Super excited. Just been waiting on it since the Virginia game. We are ready to get back out there,” Horn said. “Last year, being a freshman, I had the first-game jitters. I’ve still got ‘em this year but I pretty much know what to expect and know how to prepare for the game. I’m just looking forward to it.”
The Gamecocks will have more new talent in the secondary this year with freshman John Dixon listed as the backup behind Horn and freshman Jammie Robinson listed as the starter at nickel and a backup at safety. Freshmen Cam Smith and Shiloh Sanders also could play.
The group also has plenty of experience with Horn and Mukuamu returning at the corners. They are backed up by senior A.J. Turner, who moved to defense for the Belk Bowl and is now a key part of the secondary. Junior Jamyest Williams, sophomore R.J. Roderick and sixth-year senior J.T. Ibe will man the safety spots with Robinson.
“I feel like we have a lot of talent all around the board, at safety and corner,” Horn said. “Cam is coming along, John Dixon, Shiloh. They are all coming along and I just feel like we have quality depth in the secondary. It’s going to be a real exciting season.”
Quarterback Jake Bentley, who has to face the group in practice every day, believes the secondary is much better than the group the Gamecocks have had the past two seasons.
“They are a lot better. I think it’s just a lot more confidence in what they are doing,” he said. “Talent-wise, they have obviously gotten better and faster and stronger but I think just the confidence in what they are doing and how fast they are able to play, that’s what makes them so good. It’s really been exciting to see. It’s been a challenge offensively to go against them every day, but it’s definitely made us better.”
The secondary is so deep and features so many young players that Horn says there is not really a single leader of the group. The unit featured three seniors last year but has just two this season, and neither Ibe or Turner have played much. The group could feature mostly sophomores and freshmen on the field at times.
“There is not really a leader of the secondary,” Horn said. “We all do a good job of holding each other accountable because we have all had quality reps. Me, Jamyest, J.T., R.J., Izzy, we all played quality reps so we just all hold each other accountable in meetings, at practice and we are going to carry that over to the game field as well.”
With a better secondary and a deeper defensive line, South Carolina’s defense is expected to improve on last year’s team, which allowed 27 points and 424 yards per game. The group couldn’t stop the run (195 yards per game), struggled on third down and generated just 16 turnovers.
Horn believes a better, deeper defensive line will help the secondary.
“This D-Line is going to be really special,” he said. “You got D.J. [Wonnum] returning, we missed him last year, [Javon] Kinlaw, Kier [Thomas], Kobe [Smith], a lot of veterans and I’m just excited as a corner because I know we are going to have a lot of opportunities to get our hands on the ball because they are going to get a lot of pressure on quarterbacks.”
Horn, the son of former NFL star receiver Joe Horn, talks to his dad every day. He receives the same message and will carry that advice into the season opener.
“Just practice hard and you are going to get out what you put in. Practice hard all week and come Saturday you are going to do well in the game,” he said. “If you loaf in practice and don’t do the right thing, it might come back to bite you on Saturday. Just be prepared. He’s excited to watch us play.”