COLUMBIA, S.C. -- If the SEC’s run of five straight national championships has taught us anything, it’s that winning at a high level in this league usually begins and ends up front defensively.
Nobody needs to tell Ellis Johnson that.
As South Carolina’s assistant head coach for the defense, he’s coached enough football in the SEC to know what a championship-caliber defensive line looks like.
While Johnson isn’t ready to say the Gamecocks are there, it’s difficult to survey the collection of talent they will put on the field next fall in the defensive line and not think they have an excellent chance to get there.
“We’re getting closer,” said Johnson, who has also headed up defenses at Alabama and Mississippi State. “When you say you might be one of the best fronts South Carolina has had, that’s good. But in the neighborhood we play in, it’s just another real tough SEC front. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve been in this league a long time, and I think it’s just another damn good front.
“These kids have to play like their hair’s on fire to play with the kind of talent that’s in this league.”
In other words, Johnson wants to see it. He’s not real interested in talking about it.
Not yet, anyway.
Junior Devin Taylor was a first-team All-SEC performer last season at one end, and on his way to campus this summer is prized recruit Jadeveon Clowney, who was ESPN’s No. 1-ranked prospect in the country.
Nobody expects Clowney to come in and be an All-American his first game in a South Carolina uniform, but he has freakish athletic ability and will give the Gamecocks another explosive presence up front.
The 6-foot-7 Taylor coming after the quarterback from one end and the 6-6 Clowney bearing down from the other end is an ominous sight for any quarterback.
The Gamecocks led the SEC with 41 sacks last season. Taylor had 7.5, and Melvin Ingram led the team with nine.
The 6-2, 271-pound Ingram is South Carolina’s designated inside pass-rusher on passing downs, but he’s more of an end on first and second downs.
“Melvin is not an inside player in this league on first down,” Johnson said. “We tried to make him do that for us because we needed depth, and he fought his butt off. But Melvin is an end. When he moves inside for us on third down, he’s done some great things for us. I don’t worry about the speed and pass-rush. We’re starting to bring some kids in that can do that.”
What Johnson is looking for is more depth inside. South Carolina was third in the SEC in rushing defense last season, and Johnson was pleased with the way the Gamecocks improved against the run.
He’s had an impressive start to spring practice and is a little older than your normal freshman. Quarles spent last season at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy after originally signing with the Gamecocks in 2010.
“He kind of snuck under the radar in all the recruiting hype, because he was at prep school and then here in January,” Johnson said. “If spring ball brings him to the point fundamentally where he’s ready to make that transition, Kelcy has a tremendous upside.”
Also, Johnson said it’s been a good start to the spring for junior tackle Byron Jerideau, who transferred in from junior college last season. The 6-foot, 315-pound Jerideau has a chance to be that run-stuffer in the middle now that he’s been around for a year and has a better feel for the league.
“It’s like he’s all of a sudden made a transition now and is doing more than just lining up and trying to play hard,” Johnson said.
Robertson, the veteran of the group, likes the way it’s all fitting together.
“We took a lot of pride in setting the tone last year,” Robertson said. “It’s going to be on us even more this year, and that’s what we want.”
For Johnson, it’s about building on what the Gamecocks have started.
“There has been a player or two to come through here, an interior tackle, but he was usually by himself,” Johnson said. “There have been some big-time players in there, but there weren’t three or four of them.
“That’s what you have to have, I think, to survive in this league.”
It looks like the Gamecocks have them.