Defense will be the key to 2017 season for Gamecocks

Defense will be the key to 2017 season for Gamecocks

**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Allen Sharpe**

Speaking to hundreds of media members at the annual SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama, on Thursday, South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp didn't hide his excitement about his offense. The Gamecocks return 10 of 11 starters, and have talent and depth at every position.

But when his attention turned to defense, there was a different message. The Gamecocks lose five starters from a unit that was still looking for answers. Muschamp, a defensive mastermind, repeatedly stated the need for his defense to become more physical last season.

South Carolina will once again rely on a host of young players on that side of the ball, and when practice starts up on July 31, those athletes will be thrown into the fire. 

"We have some questions that need to be answered," Muschamp said. "Our 11th practice is going to be a scrimmage, and that's going to be D-Day for a lot of these young guys. We need to make a decision on the who and the what. Who is going to be playing and what can they handle? We need to do that early because we open up with N.C. State and then go to Missouri."

Muschamp and his staff inherited a defense that was one of the worst in the SEC, and the group showed some improvement last season. The Gamecocks gave up an average of 411.9 yards per game in 2016-17, an improvement of nearly 19 yards from the season before. 

That wasn't nearly enough for Muschamp, and the coach was particularly displeased with the lack of pass rush. He made a plea to recruits after the loss in the Birmingham Bowl, and the team subsequently signed four defensive lineman in the most recent signing class.

At SEC Media Days on Thursday, Muschamp called out three senior defensive lineman who needed to take the charge for defensive improvement – Taylor Stallworth, Ulric Jones and Dante Sawyer. 

"For us to play well defensively, we need these guys to play well," Muschamp said of the trio. "We're putting the pressure on these guys."

The aforementioned five starters are gone, but the Gamecocks do return their top two tacklers in safety D.J. Smith and linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams. Muschamp said that Smith "played his best ball during the spring" and Allen-Williams is continuously improving. 

Those two players are important, but the biggest development on defense will be the return of linebacker Skai Moore, who redshirted last year after a neck injury. The senior led the team in tackles the first three seasons he played and is also just three interceptions shy of the program career record.

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Moore's teammates have raved about him, and he'll immediately step back in and become the unquestioned leader. 

"He brings an element of toughness, leadership, speed, athleticism (and) is very instinctive at the position," Muschamp said of Moore. "Been through an awful lot this year. Coaching change, thought about coming out a couple times. I think he made two very mature decisions to come back. Really excited to see him play this year."

The incoming freshmen will play a big role on defense, but the young returners will also be relied on. Players like Jamarcus King, Steven Montac, D.J. Wonnum, Keir Thomas and T.J. Brunson gained valuable experience during their first years with the team. That improvement will need to speed up this offseason. 

"Year one to year two has got to be your largest movement as far as your improvement as a player," Muschamp said.