Will Muschamp knew going into last season his defensive line might struggle early in the year.
The Gamecocks had lost three seniors up front in Taylor Stallworth, Dante Sawyer and Uric Jones, as well as four-year starter Skai Moore at linebacker. When they faced No. 3 Georgia in Week 2, Muschamp’s worst fears were realized. Georgia rolled up 473 yards, 271 on the ground, in a 41-17 win at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“We got exposed in Week 2,” Muschamp said.
He doesn’t expect that to happen again this year. He has the deepest front seven he’s had in his three years at South Carolina, including five seniors who are expected play key roles.
The line will be anchored by defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, an NFL prospect who has garnered preseason accolades after a promising junior season. He could be flanked by seniors Kobe Smith, Keir Thomas, D.J. Wonnum and Danny Fennell, with senior T.J. Brunson leading the linebacking crew.
“I’m really going to put a lot of pressure on our five seniors up front,” Muschamp said. “We need those five guys to play well, and they should. They are good football players and they need to play well and they need to help bring these other guys along.
“They need to have great years for us to have the type of year we need to have.”
The five seniors all have extensive experience. Thomas, who plays inside and outside, has played in 38 games with 25 starts. He has 106 career tackles, with 12 tackles for loss. Smith has played in 37 games, with six starts and 56 career tackles. Fennell has played in 30 games with seven starts and 56 career tackles from the Buck and Sam linebacker positions.
Kinlaw and Wonnum have been the two stars up front. Kinlaw, a junior-college transfer two years ago, has played in 25 games with 22 starts. He has 12 career tackles for loss and shared defensive MVP honors last year with Brunson. A preseason All-SEC pick and a candidate for several national honors, big things are expected from the 6-6, 310-pound defensive tackle.
“Javon, I think he’s in the best shape he’s been in at South Carolina,” Muschamp said. “He’s got a great mentality in attacking this season and certainly he can be a very disruptive player.”
Wonnum, who missed most of last season with an ankle injury, was dominant as a sophomore, earning SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week twice. A permanent team captain, he has played in 31 games with 18 starts and has 100 career tackles, including 20 tackles for loss. He is the key to developing a strong pass rush from his Buck position.
They key to success for the seniors and the whole line is depth. The Gamecocks were forced to play freshmen Rick Sandidge and J.J. Enagbare last season and they both gained valuable experience. They will have more depth inside with Sandidge, Jabari Ellis, junior-college transfer Devonte Davis, redshirt freshman Tyreek Johnson and true freshman Zacch Pickens.
Enagbare, who was dominant in the spring game, has moved outside to defensive end and will compete with Thomas, junior Aaron Sterling, who started last season, and freshman Joseph Anderson. Junior Brad Johnson, who also looked good in the spring, will back up Wonnum at the Buck position.
“I think we have recruited well,” Muschamp said. “Ricky is a year older, J.J. is a year older, Aaron Sterling is a year older, Jabari Ellis, Devonte Davis, Tyreek Johnson getting him back, Zacch Pickens and Joe Anderson. We need those guys to keep coming along for us.”
Pickens, the No. 2 ranked defensive lineman in the country and Muschamp’s first five-star recruit, is expected to develop into an impact player. He will have plenty of competition, however, for playing time this season.
“With all young players, their roles are going to be defined in training camp, and some older players too,” Muschamp said. “As far as how much they are going to play is how well can we depend on them to go play at a high level.”
With more options up front, Muschamp believes this year’s group will be much more prepared to compete with top teams like Georgia.
“I think the players are the answer,” he said. “Now we have gotten a year older and some of the growing pains we went through last year should be positives for us.”