Gamecocks walking wounded on defense

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

It’s the last thing South Carolina’s defense needed to happen.

The Gamecocks have played three games, with No. 4-ranked Ole Miss coming to town Thursday, and they’re already scrambling to keep guys on the field because of injuries.

Six starters or backups are nursing injuries on defense, which not only has a short week to get ready, but is facing its greatest challenge yet in a Jevan Snead-led Ole Miss offense that's fresh and leading the SEC in scoring.

“We don’t have a defensive unit right now. We have a bunch of bodies and a bunch of guys trying hard,” said Ellis Johnson, South Carolina’s assistant head coach for the defense. “We’re young in some spots. We’re beat up in other spots. We’re thin in some spots. And right now, there’s nothing you can look at out there except for effort and heart and say we can hang our hat on that.”

It’s questionable at this point whether the Gamecocks will get defensive tackle Nathan Pepper back for the Ole Miss game. He and backup tackle Kenny Davis both have high ankle sprains. Pepper was already dealing with knee issues and missed the Florida Atlantic game.

Strong safety Darian Stewart and end Cliff Matthews both played with neck stingers in the Florida Atlantic game, while All-SEC outside linebacker Eric Norwood was limited in the second half after suffering a shoulder contusion. The Gamecocks were already missing middle linebacker Rodney Paulk, who’s out for the season with a torn ACL.

Johnson didn’t want to take any chances with Norwood, which is the reason he played sparingly in the second half. He’s going to play against Ole Miss, but the problem is that the Gamecocks are right on that threshold of being in major trouble if anybody else goes down in the front seven.

“It’s frustrating because we have to cut back to almost vanilla because there are so many young players out there and so many kids out there that haven’t practiced,” Johnson said. “We’re not good enough physically to overcome that right now. Hopefully, we’ll get some of those guys back and go from there.”

The Gamecocks will get junior tackle Ladi Ajiboye back from a three-game suspension, and that will help.

The other area where all these injuries come into play is special teams. The Gamecocks started the season with younger players on kickoff coverage, and that unit suffered. They’ve since added several starters to the coverage teams, but that really gets dicey when so many guys on defense are already banged up.