There is more than one reason for South Carolina’s defensive implosion in 2014, but it all starts up front. A defense that boasted some of the SEC’s most intimidating defensive lines in recent seasons turned into a laughingstock in the course of one offseason.
Losing All-SEC stars like Jadeveon Clowney -- who left after his junior season to become the first pick in the 2014 NFL draft -- and Kelcy Quarles obviously hurt, but nobody would have predicted things to get as bad as they got last fall.
This was a defense that produced six NFL draft picks along the defensive line in the previous five years. It was a position group that anchored three straight 11-win Gamecocks teams. And it turned into a complete disaster in 2014.
That makes the defensive line South Carolina’s most important position group -- even more so than the uncertain position battles at quarterback and along the offensive line. Simply put, South Carolina will be a much more difficult team to beat if its defensive front develops into something more than a liability.
Check out the change that occurred in just one year’s time. In 2013, South Carolina ranked in the FBS top 20 in total defense, scoring defense, turnovers gained and pass defense. Last season the Gamecocks failed to rank in the top 50 in any major category, and they were among the nation’s worst units for total defense (432.7 yards allowed per game, 92nd in FBS), scoring defense (30.4 points per game, 89th), run defense (212.2 ypg, 105th), tackles for loss (four per game, tied for 121st), sacks (10.8 per game, 118th) and third-down defense (42 percent, 86th).
It would be unfair to pin that squarely on the front line, but that group certainly deserves the bulk of the blame. It was evident in the first game of the season -- a blowout loss to Texas A&M -- that opponents could move the ball nearly at will against the Clowney-less Gamecocks. They were unable to rush the passer with any consistency and were nearly incapable of stopping the run (as evidenced by opponents’ average of 5.37 yards per carry against them).
That’s the bad news about the line. Here’s the good: things should get better in a hurry. The Gamecocks return most everyone from last season’s defense, but the bigger cause for optimism is how Steve Spurrier’s staff addressed the line on the recruiting trail. Four of the Gamecocks’ five highest-rated signees were defensive linemen -- and three of them came either from junior college or prep school.
One of the juco signees, Marquavius Lewis, enrolled in January and quickly grabbed a starting spot thanks to a quick get-off that should help him become a pass-rushing specialist. Fellow juco transfer Dante Sawyer could also make an immediate impact.
That infusion of talent -- particularly the more physically mature talent -- could allow South Carolina to make a quick turnaround up front. If Lewis in any way resembles the Gamecocks’ star pass-rushers of the past, that might be exactly the spark South Carolina’s defense needs to return to previous form.