By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe
For young student-athletes, adjusting to campus life while transitioning to big-time college football can be a daunting challenge.
For many, it's their first time away from home. Just learning where to go, how to get there and when to arrive can be a lesson in futility. And then, the next thing they know, their coach is in their face, yelling at them over a missed assignment.
"These young men go through a lot when they come on campus," South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp says. "They are away from momma, new playbook, maybe Coach Muschamp is not as nice as when he recruited you. There is a lot."
Balancing class, college life and football can be such a whirlwind they sometimes don't even know what day it is. And that can try the patience of even the most seasoned coaches.
"This generation of kids, you start from ground zero," South Carolina defensive line coach Lance Thompson says. "You teach them how to listen. You ask them what day of week it is and they tell you January."
There are exceptions, however.
D.J. Wonnum was the exception.
A junior from Stone Mountain, Ga., Wonnum was determined to make an impression from the first day he stepped on campus.
"I probably never imagined this and all the things I would be going through," Wonnum said during the offseason. "But coming onto campus, may main goal was to work hard and do things on your own, do things the right way."
In two short years, the 6-5, 258-pound defensive end, has made a big impression, especially on his coaches.
"D.J. is a special guy," Thompson said. "I've watched a lot of guys like him and he's a special guy in terms of he does everything right."
"D.J. is as good a young man as you will meet," Muschamp says, reiterating a familiar refrain when talking about one of his favorite players. "He's just very consistent in everything he does, in life, off the field, football, in the meeting room, in the weight room. You know exactly what you are going to get every single day with D.J. Wonnum."
Wonnum, one of the top pass rushers in the SEC last season, will lead the Gamecock defense as it opens its season Saturday at noon against Coastal Carolina.
What the Gamecocks have gotten from Wonnum so far is a highly productive defensive end who has quickly turned himself into one of the best pass rushers and most dominant players in the SEC. Wonnum played in all 13 games as a freshman, collecting 32 tackles and making the conference All-Freshman team.
Last year, he took another giant leap, leading the Gamecocks with six sacks and 13 tackles for loss. He was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week twice and was a big part of South Carolina's big-play defense. After the season, he became just the third sophomore in school history to be named a permanent team captain, joining teammate Jake Bentley and former teammate Hayden Hurst.
Muschamp considers that the ultimate honor, one voted on by the team and that exemplifies a player's value and leadership.
"The guy does everything right," defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson says. "He's a guy that comes in first. He studies. He knows what to do. He can play multiple positions. He's a tremendous leader as far as watching how he does things."
Adds Thompson: "He's never late for a meeting, he's never disrespectful to anybody in any part of the organization. He always handles his business the way you what him to. If you had a daughter, you want your daughter to marry a guy like that. If you have a son, you want your son to emulate a guy like that. That's best compliment I can give you on D.J."
As good as Wonnum is off the field, he might just be even better on it. His pass-rushing skills will be crucial this season to what Muschamp and Robinson want to do on defense. After winning with a bend-but-don't-break defense last season, they expect to attack this season, using a four-man rush to get to the quarterback and to help create turnovers.
They expect Wonnum to a be a disruptive force on the edge. With the return of senior linebacker Bryson-Allen Williams, Muschamp expects to have a fierce pass rush with Wonnum at the Buck position and Williams at the Sam linebacker spot.
"We’ll be able to have two hard edges with two big, physical, violent guys on the edges," he said.
"We are fast and physical," Wonnum said. "We are going to do some good things this year."
Wonnum will be the focal point of what could be a strong defensive front for the Gamecocks. Big Javon Kinlaw (6-6, 305) returns at defensive tackle along with junior Keir Thomas, who will move inside to tackle. There are plenty of pass rushers between Wonnom, Thomas, Allen-Williams, sophomore Aaron Sterling and others.
Wonnum will be the catalyst and set the tone.
"D.J. is a freak of nature," Allen-Williams said. "D.J. is going to have a big year. Just the way he works everyday, he's a technician. In college football, you have to be a technician … there is not that many guys you can overpower. And D.J. is crazy on his technique.
"He has the talent, he has the physical ability, can jump out of the roof. I'm just excited to see him play this year."
Wonnum spent most of the offseason refining his technique — "working on my craft," as he calls it — and working on gaining strength.
After his freshman year, Muschamp and Robinson challenged him to get bigger and stronger. He won the team's Strength & Conditioning Award last season and gained nearly 10 pounds during the offseason. He was noticeably bigger during training camp.
"In his first year, he had a hard time attacking some of the 300-, 330-pound tackles," Muschamp said. "But the thing about D.J., you tell him once, it's done. You don't have to repeat it over and over again. It's not an Etch A Sketch with this guy. He gets it."
Wonnum's next big challenge is to become more of a leader, joining Allen-Williams and defensive captain T.J. Brunson as leaders of the defense.
Brunson and Wonnum came in together and were roommates as freshmen. The junior linebacker has watched his teammate grow and develop as a player. He says Wonnum has been a leader simply through his work ethic and performance.
"He's worked his tail off since he's been here," Brunson said. "He's one of those guys that brings the intensity every day to practice and he's always working to get better."
Robinson wants to see Wonnum take that intensity and become more vocal and demonstrative, particularly with new and young players who need guidance on and off the field. His challenge is to lead those young players who sometimes don't know where they are going, what they're doing or what day it is.
"The next step is bringing people along," Robinson said. "That's something that me and him talked about this summer, bringing some guys along with him and being able to tell a guy the tough things. That's something that a guy has to learn how to do, being able to tell one of the boys, 'Hey, you ain't doing right, you ain't running to the ball.' That's a hard conversation, but as we continue to grow as brothers and a brotherhood that's something that we have to be able to do, call a guy out."
Wonnum has embraced that challenge, but he knows that to get his teammates to listen, he also must continue to lead by example.
"You have to give your best at everything you do so those guys will follow you," he said. "Having those guys looking up to you is pretty fun and pretty cool. … It motivates me to work harder and get my guys to do extra off the field to improve their game."
That approach doesn't surprise Muschamp. After all, he has watched Wonnum do everything else the right way.
"This is a guy who really learns well and he's able to retain information from day to day and week to week," he said. "And a guy who is an absolute joy to coach."