By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe and Jenny Dilworth
A year ago,Travaris Robinson and his South Carolina defense were just worried about stopping the other team and getting off the field.
That's not good enough in the second year under head coach Will Muschamp and with Robinson running the defense as defensive coordinator.
"We don't really like three-and-outs, we like one-and-outs," Robinson said Thursday. "We like to get the ball back. That's what we talk about every single day, about getting the rock. Our kids are doing a great job of attacking the ball and that helps our offense protect the ball. We want to be the best turnover-margin team in the country."
Robinson had such a young and inexperienced defense last year that he couldn't really attack opposing teams they way he wanted. In Year Two of the Muschamp Era, his defense appears to be bigger, stronger, faster and deeper. Though there are still plenty of roles to be filled, Robinson feels like he has more to work with in 2017.
"You have some things in your tool box, where in your first year you are a little nervous," he said. "A lot of time last year, we had to condense what we did to make it easier for the kids so we didn't give up a play. Now we can be more aggressive in how we call it to try to make a play."
"We've got guys who have played all over the field," senior line back Bryson Allen-Williams said. "You have guys on each level who have been there before who have been in big-time situations and made big-time plays. Just having that and a full year under the same defense and the same coordinator is going to really help us out on defense."
Developing depth is the biggest concern in training camp. With the return of senior linebacker Skai Moore, who missed all of last season with a neck injury, the Gamecocks have eight seniors back on defense. But there is little depth behind them and Muschamp and Robinson are counting on freshmen and newcomers to fill those roles.
They especially need depth in the front seven, where South Carolina is thin on the defensive line and at linebacker.
Freshmen like Brad Johnson and Aaron Sterling may wind playing key roles on the defensive line, while freshmen Sherrod Greene and Davonne Bowen could contribute at linebacker, along with transfer Eldridge Thompson. Freshmen Jaylin Dickerson and Jamyest Williams and transfer Keisean Nixon are expected to challenge for playing time in the secondary.
Perhaps the most intriguing newcomer is 330-pound defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw, a JUCO transfer from Charleston. The Gamecocks not only need depth on the defensive line, they need size, and Kinlaw definitely has that. He has stood out in camp just on size alone.
"He's big. He's really big," Robinson said. "He demands two blocks. We need someone who can hold the point. When you look at some of the games where we had the ball run down our throat … we just couldn't hang in there because we didn't have the girth. He provides instant girth."
A key emphasis in camp is finding pass rushers. The Gamecocks had just 21 sacks last year, and graduated senior Darius English accounted for nine of them. Robinson is counting on Allen Williams to help defensive ends Dante Sawyer and D.J. Wonnum put more pressure on the quarterback this season. Big things are expected from Wonnum, who played as a freshman and has been impressive so far in camp.
"We just have to continue to try to find us some pass rushers," Robinson said.
With so many young players expected to earn playing time, the leadership of returning players like Moore and Allen-Williams is crucial. Robinson has seen that in the first week of camp.
"The freshman are doing a really good job," he said. "Our older players are really taking them under their wing and helping them. … Our kids are really taking the onus to be a really good football team. I'm really proud of them for doing that."
"We have a lot of guys who people don't know about, but when the season gets around, they will know about them," Allen-Williams said.
Moore, who led the team in tackles for three straight seasons before getting injured, and Allen-Williams will be counted on to help a young linebacker unit, where sophomore T.J. Brunson is expected to start at one spot with freshmen backing them up. Having two returning seniors there is key on a young team.
"It means the world," Robinson said. "If you can help a guy on the field and tell them what to do, you have a chance to get it done. If guys are out there thinking, he is nervous, there is a lot of stuff going through a young player's head, it's hard for them to be successful. That calms them down when they get a chance to hear them reiterate what they already thought the call was, and go from there."
More than anything, Robinson likes the closeness and camaraderie he has seen from his defense so far.
"We have a lot of guys battling with each other and battling for each other, and that's the one thing we talked about going into fall camp," he said. "We want to get closer as a team, we want to compete in a different way, and I think our kids are really doing that."