By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe
South Carolina defensive line coach Lance Thompson would like to have six or seven players he can rotate on the interior of the Gamecocks' D-Line.
"But I'd like to eat three cheeseburgers, too," the veteran line coach says.
Thompson's biggest challenge during training camp is finding depth behind starting defensive tackles Javon Kinlaw and Keir Thomas. It's the same issue South Carolina faces on the offensive line, but it's perhaps even more critical on the defensive side of the ball because the Gamecocks have very little experience there and will be relying primarily on freshmen and young players.
"I'm not very comfortable at all with it right now," Thompson said Tuesday. "But I am very encouraged by the kids we have and being able to develop them to where they can play some winning football for us. I want to have guys who can play winning football. When I put you in the game, I have to depend on you and I have to trust you. If I can depend on you and I can trust you, I will put you in. If I don't, just come over there and stand by me."
Kinlaw and Thomas, both juniors who combined for 21 starts last season, are expected to start at defensive tackle, with junior D.J. Wonnum and sophomore Aaron Sterling starting at the defensive ends. Junior Kobe Smith is the only experienced lineman behind Kinlaw and Thomas.
"With the three guys we have up front who played ball [last year], we're confident with them," Thompson said. "We think they are better and they are doing some good things. And with the guys we have outside, I think we'll be in a better situation."
Thompson is not ready to name a second or third team defensive line yet. There is plenty of depth at defensive end, with Shemeik Blackshear, Daniel Fennell and Brad Johnson all getting valuable playing time last year.
But Thompson's primary focus is to find big bodies who can back up Kinlaw, Thomas and Smith. And most of those options are young. Blackshear, like Thomas, can play inside or outside but the other options lack experience. Junior-college transfer Jabari Ellis is in camp but has been dealing with an injury. The other options are mostly true freshmen, with J.J. Enagbare, Rick Sandidge and Jesus Gibbs all getting a look.
"This time of year … for us, it's an organization deal. We have different people on the first team and different people on the second and it doesn't really mean anything," Thompson said. "It's just an opportunity for them to get reps with different people and see what they can do with different people. It's a team mentality. We are just trying to develop quality depth and play good, consistent winning football."
Thompson is hesitant to pencil anybody into any position up front because he doesn't want to put expectations or pressure on young players still trying to adjust to SEC football.
"All we're trying to get them to do is accept our expectation of playing with effort and playing with toughness and playing with discipline," he said.
"This generation of kids, you start from ground zero. You teach them how to listen. … We try to get them to listen and understand that this is the process and don't get frustrated with expectations or what your mom and dad want you to do and what [the media] wants you to do. Just go out and work hard and work right every day and be the best we can be. … I just want them to do right, practice right and learn to play the game the way we want it played."
At least one of the true freshmen has stood out so far. J.J. Enagbare, a 6-4, 285-pound freshman from Atlanta, impressed coaches in the spring and so far in preseason training camp.
"He's working hard," Thompson said. "He's a very conscientious kid, he's a tremendously talented kid. He reminds me of some guys who have played at the next level with his quick twitch. What we have to get him to do is play with consistency. You can't have him play at the A-level one play and then playing at the C-level. We can't do that. And he's working hard to do that and he's doing a really good job."
Another player expected to contribute right away is Rick Sandidge, a 6-5, 285-pound freshman from Bamberg, S.C. Sandidge was rated the second-best defensive tackle in the country his senior year at Concord (N.C.) High School. He missed spring practice, however, and is just getting his feet wet in preseason camp.
Sandidge is one of the young players that Thompson doesn't want to push too hard, too early.
"Ricky has a lot of potential, he's a great young man," Thompson said. "He's a big guy who plays inside but I don't put expectations on them. I try to get in their head to say, 'Here's what you need to do to be a good football player.'
"… I know everybody likes to hype these kids but that puts a lot of pressure on them. I would rather not do that. I would rather not put expectations on them. … I don't want any pressure on Ricky, I don't want any pressure on any of these guys."