South Carolina vs. Kentucky

D.J. Wonnum, Javon Kinlaw

When Javon Kinlaw signed with South Carolina four years ago, he had no idea what to expect.

All the big defensive tackle knew was that he would have to go to junior college for a year and get in shape before ever playing for the Gamecocks.

“I had a lot of work to do, but I knew that going into it. I got it done and now I’m here,” said Kinlaw, now the leader of South Carolina’s defensive line.

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When the Charleston native finished up his one year at Jones County Junior College in Mississippi, there was no doubt he would return to Columbia to play for Will Muschamp.

“I was loyal to him because he didn’t really have to send me to a JUCO. He didn’t have to do that for me,” he said.

Three years later, with just three games remaining in what has been an all-star senior year, the 6-6, 310-pound Kinlaw is one of 25 seniors who will be honored on Senior Night Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium. The group includes 10 players in Muschamp’s first recruiting class and seven who were freshmen on Steve Spurrier’s final South Carolina team.

“These guys, they came in a year before I came in but … it’s like a band of brothers,” Kinlaw said. “I came in with these guys and knowing these guys for so long and just seeing them all the time, they really became my family over time.”

The 2019 senior class features so many accomplished players that Muschamp spent more than five minutes at his weekly press conference Tuesday naming each player and praising the group’s achievements on the field and in the classroom.

Of the 25 seniors, 11 have already graduated, while 11 more will collect their diplomas in December. The final three will graduate in May of 2020. Six of them will leave South Carolina with multiple degrees, like defensive end Danny Fennell, who will earn his graduate degree from the international business school in December.

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Five seniors will be honored Saturday night though they are eligibe to return to play football for one more season. That group includes quarterback Jake Bentley, a three-year starter who was lost to injury in the season opener. He could take a medical redshirt and return next season if he chooses to do so. Muschamp says that door is open.

Bentley, he said, “has meant so much to this program.”

“Extremely disappointed that his senior year was taken away. I hurt for him and his family [because] he’s done so much for the University of South Carolina and our football program.”

Starting offensive lineman Sadarius Hutcherson and tight end Kyle Markway also could return next season, though they will already have graduated. Muschamp said he would help them make that decision in December.

Fennell and Markway are two of the seven players who remained after Spurrier’s departure, along with Donell Stanley, A.J. Turner, Mon Denson, Michael Almond and Joseph Charlton.

Among the 10 players from Muschamp’s first recruiting class are: Kinlaw, Bentley, T.J. Brunson, Bryan Edwards, Rico Dowdle, Chavis Dawkins, Hutcherson, Kiel Pollard, Kobe Smith and D.J. Wonnum.

“They have all been integral parts of our program in these four years. [They’ve] done a fantastic job of setting a great example of how we need to do things the right way,” Muschamp said.

Muschamp also singled out players like Pollard and Turner, who, like Bentley, suffered injuries that derailed their senior seasons. Pollard suffered a neck injury in training camp and had to retire from football. Turner, a key player the past three seasons, also suffered an injury in training camp and has been hampered all year by a nagging hamstring injury.

“It just breaks your heart,” he said. “Their senior years have not gone the way they should have, but life’s not fair and you have to handle it and adjust and move on and those three guys have handled things the right way.”

This class will always be special to Muschamp because it is his first. He takes great pride in not only their accomplishments on the field — three straight bowl games, a 9-4 record in 2018 — but off the field as well. His team had a cumulative GPA of 3.0 in back-to-back semesters last fall and this spring.

“I appreciate their contributions. A lot of very positive things,” he said. “I’m disappointed from a team standpoint that we haven’t exactly had the year we wanted to have and we anticipated to have. It’s been very inconsistent, and that’s on me, but very proud of their accomplishments here at South Carolina.”

The team’s underclassman also appreciate this year’s seniors and the leadership they have provided during a disappointing 4-5 season.

“I look to my left and my right and I won’t see T.J. [Brunson] or I look down and Javon will be gone or D.J. [Wonnum] will be gone,” sophomore linebacker Ernest Jones said. “You just cherish every moment you get with these guys and get to play with them, because before you know it they will be out the door and somebody else will be in their spot.”

Kinlaw, who has emerged as one of the best defensive linemen in the country and a likely first-round NFL Draft pick, is surprised how fast his three years have flown by. He can’t hardly believe he has only three or four games remaining.

“Coach T-Rob [Defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson] always said it was going to fly by. When I was a younger guy, I was like, ‘Man, this takes forever.’ But it definitely flew by,” he said.

He’s glad he committed to Muschamp four years ago and really glad he followed through on that commitment and transferred to South Carolina after a year of junior college.

“Honestly, I thought I would have like 100,000 sacks and stuff like that, just crazy stuff,” he says with a laugh. “… But, you know, it’s coming along well. I like how I have been developing over these past couple of years. I’m proud of how everything is going.”