December 13, 2007

Look Back, Look Ahead: Defensive Line

With several young impact players and a quartet of heralded January arrivals, the 2007 season was a transitional one for the South Carolina defensive line.

But with only three players exiting - defensive ends Casper Brinkley and Ryan Brown and tackle Joel Reaves - defensive line coach Brad Lawing will enjoy the luxury of working with many of the same players in 2008.

As a result, the defensive line should be deeper and more experienced next season. But, it's no secret the line must improve defending the run by leaps and bounds.

If they don't, the 2008 season could very well end the same way as this past season did - without a bowl game.

Brinkley finished sixth on the team in tackles as the unit's emotional leader in the absence of his brother, Jasper, who missed the final eight games with a serious knee injury.

The most productive newcomer was Ladi Ajiboye, possibly USC's most reliable interior defensive lineman as a freshman this past season.

He started 10 games, most among Gamecock freshman, and made 39 tackles, including three sacks, two in the victory over North Carolina. It was good enough to earn a spot on the SEC All-Freshman Team.

USC fans may have seen a preview of next season when 6-foot-5, 327-pound redshirt freshman Kenrick Ellis started the final regular season game against Clemson alongside Ajiboye.

Ellis nearly doubled his season output with five tackles against the Tigers. He finished the campaign with 11 tackles, three for loss, and one quarterback hurry.

After struggling with his weight and conditioning through his first year or so in Columbia, Ellis buckled down and after a series of productive practices saw his playing time increase over the final three weeks. Nine of his 11 tackles came against Arkansas, Florida and Clemson.

It's not inconceivable Ellis and Ajiboye could maintain a stranglehold on the starting defensive tackle jobs for the next three years.

With Ellis and Ajiboye on the rise, the burden will be on senior defensive tackles Marque Hall and Jonathan Williams to maintain the pace.

In addition, junior Nathan Pepper should return to action by the start of fall camp from a serious knee injury suffered in bizarre fashion in the South Carolina State game.

The Greenville, S.C. is still rehabilitating the injury and should sit out spring practice as a precaution. He had five tackles and an interception before going down for the season.

Hall struggled to regain his form after returning from a knee injury that sidelined him for all but two games in 2006. He finished with 22 tackles, one sack and five QB hurries but lost his starting job to Williams for three games midway through the season.

Provided his knee cooperates, Hall, USC's best defensive lineman when he was hurt in 2006, could provide stiff competition to Ellis and Ajiboye in the spring.

Williams made his presence felt with 13 tackles, one sack and one critical forced fumble that came in the Kentucky game when he belted UK quarterback Andre Woodson. Norwood recovered the fumble and fell into the end zone for a touchdown.

Freshman Donte'e Nicholls redshirted in 2007 and will try to impress Lawing enough in spring practice to set a foundation heading into the summer.

Defensive end Eric Norwood, a junior in 2008, became a household name this fall after becoming just the fourth player in Division I history to return two fumbles for touchdowns in the nationally televised 38-23 win over Kentucky. Not surprisingly, he was named SEC Player of the Week

Norwood finished second on the Gamecocks with 69 tackles, but like most players on the defensive side of the football he struggled down the stretch with just one sack in the final four games.

As a result, his sack total (team high six) actually declined by one from the 2006 season when he tied Casper Brinkley for the team lead. His 13 career sacks place him eighth on USC's all-time list. At his current pace, Norwood would equal Andrew Provence's school record of 26 sacks.

Overall, Norwood enjoyed a solid season with a school-record 19.5 tackles for loss, nine quarterback hurries and three fumble recoveries. In the middle portion of the schedule, Norwood was playing like an All-American, sparking solid defensive efforts in victories over Mississippi State, Kentucky and North Carolina.

Norwood's success this season earned him a spot on the All-SEC First-Team, joining cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and wide receiver Kenny McKinley as the only Gamecock representatives on the distinguished unit.

Heading into spring practice, the major question facing the defensive line is who will replace Casper Brinkley at defensive end. The most logical choice would be Travian Robertson, who got his feet wet (seven tackles in 12 games) in 2007 while backing up Brinkley for nearly the entire season.

However, Clifton Geathers, who had two tackles while playing sparingly this past season, could have something to say about that. It could be one of the most intensely-watched battles of spring practice.

Two intriguing questions remain at defensive end: 1) Will Cliff Matthews (26 tackles a true freshman in 2007; SEC All-Freshman Team) stay at outside linebacker or will he move back to playing with his hand down as he did early this past season?; 2) Will Jordin Lindsey contribute after suffering a serious laceration on his neck during a recent early-morning altercation in Five Points?

Lindsey was academically ineligible to play in 2007 after earning Defensive MVP honors in the Liberty Bowl win over Houston. He had 37 tackles in 2006, starting the final five games of the season.

His return could provide a boost to a defensive line searching for veteran leadership. Lindsey, along with his brother Dustin, has one season of eligibility left.

Byron McKnight, a high school teammate of Robertson, redshirted in 2007 and will try to move up the depth chart in the spring with an eye towards securing some game experience next fall.

PROJECTED 2008 DEFENSIVE LINE ROSTER:
Ladi Ajiboye (DT)
Kenrick Ellis (DT)
Clifton Geathers (DE)
Marque Hall (DT)
Jordin Lindsey (DE)
Cliff Matthews (DE)
Byron McKnight (DE)
Donte'e Nicholls (DT)
Eric Norwood (DE)
Nathan Pepper (DT)
Travian Robertson (DE)
Jonathan Williams (DT)


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