March 14, 2008

Spring Preview: Plenty of Depth At D-Line

South Carolina defensive line coach Brad Lawing recalls his first spring on Steve Spurrier's staff in 2006 when he barely had enough players to get through a practice, let alone a scrimmage.

Times have changed.

Lawing will have 11 defensive linemen ready to go when the Gamecocks kick off spring practice March 19. That number will balloon to 16 in late July upon the arrival of five DL signees for fall camp.

"We have some talent right now. My job is to make them into ballplayers," Lawing said. "We have several guys who have played well in games, but we've got a lot of inexperienced guys we're going to depend on. I feel pretty good about the level of talent we have. Spring practice is all about developing your team and your players."

With so many players at his disposal, Lawing expects the spring will be intense for the defensive line as players compete for playing time come the fall. Gone are the days when Lawing was forced to play certain individuals even though they weren't ready simply because no one else was available.

"The most productive players are the ones that are going to play," Lawing said. "From two years ago when I got here, it's different. My first spring here, I was trying to convince people to be defensive linemen. It's a better situation, but I have to do a good job coaching them."

Lawing's primary goal for this spring? Get five defensive tackles and five defensive ends ready to play on a rotating basis heading into next season.

"I want to be able to roll guys in and out and keep them fresh," Lawing said. "That way, the fourth quarter we have a chance to finish a team off."

The defensive end position features an All-SEC performer in Eric Norwood, who was second on the Gamecocks behind Emanuel Cook with 69 tackles, 19.5 for loss. He also led USC with six sacks. While his raw numbers tailed off a bit towards the end of the season, Lawing contends the junior from Acworth, Ga. continued to perform well.

"Eric Norwood had a fine sophomore season," Lawing said. "He really began to start understand our defense. I don't think his production dropped off at all. He was pretty consistent the entire season. Consistent pressure on the quarterback is more important than just getting a sack."

Norwood saved his best game for national TV when he returned two fumble recoveries for touchdowns against Kentucky in early October. After that, Norwood became a household name.

Although he's set the SEC on fire in his first two seasons, Lawing warns that even Norwood isn't immune from competition. Norwood still has plenty to improve on, his position coach asserts.

"Eric needs to improve his initial quickness," Lawing said. "He and I have talked about it. Sometimes he tries to analyze too much rather than just reacting. Eric still needs to come out and earn his position and work hard."

The major question at defensive end is who will earn the right to replace Casper Brinkley, who exhausted his eligibility after last season.

According to the pre-spring depth chart, the leading candidate to start at the defensive end spot opposite Norwood is senior Jordin Lindsey, who missed the 2007 season after he was ruled academically ineligible. He started six games and had 37 tackles in 2006.

The last time we saw Lindsey in a Gamecock uniform, he was named USC's Most Outstanding Defensive Player in the 2006 Liberty Bowl victory over Houston.

Three months ago, Lindsey was seriously injured when he was gashed in the neck by a broken beer bottle during a fight in Five Points. Only the quick actions of his brother Dustin and others prevented the situation from becoming more tragic.

"He's had a good off-season (in the weight room), but he has to take care of business in the classroom," Lawing said. "Right now, he is. On the football field, he doesn't have many problems. He loves to play the game. Once he starts doing the right things off the field, he'll be fine. When he's on the football field he works hard. He has toughness. Football isn't the problem with him. It's academics. He struggled with it a year ago and hopefully he learned a lesson from it."

The pre-spring depth chart lists Norwood and Lindsey as the first-team defensive ends, with Clifton Geathers and Travian Robertson as the top backups.

Geathers and Robertson saw limited snaps last season as true freshmen.

"Both of them needed to be redshirted last year," Lawing acknowledged. "But we were kind of thin, so we played them. I thought they could help us and they did. Both of them have very good athletic skills. We just have to teach them how to play football. There's more to it than just running and lifting weights."

Byron McKnight, a high school teammate of Robertson's in Laurinburg, N.C., redshirted last season. He weighed about 215 pounds when he arrived at USC last July. He's added about 25 pounds since then, Lawing said.

"The growth spurt has finally kicked in," Lawing said. "He's going to be a big guy. He has ability. I've told him he's trying to get into the top five."

Cliff Matthews opened last season at defensive end but shifted to outside linebacker after the season started and eventually started nine games there as a true freshmen. Lawing said the Cheraw, S.C. native will remain at outside linebacker in the spring.

Sophomore Ladi Ajiboye emerged as USC's best defensive tackle as last season progressed, finishing with 39 tackles and three sacks. He was named to multiple Freshman All-America teams and numerous Freshman All-SEC tams.

"Ladi had a good freshman year. He's certainly a frontrunner to be a starter," Lawing said. "He's certainly been the guy that's been the most productive. You don't make All-SEC just keeping the guard off the linebacker. You do make All-SEC by making plays too in both the run game and the passing game. But he's still a second year player. He's still learning."

Behind Ajiboye on the depth chart is junior Nathan Pepper, who suffered a devastating season-ending knee injury in the S.C. State game last September. Pepper continues his rehabilitation, but Lawing doesn't expect him to be physically ready for contact drills this spring.

"Nathan will probably miss the spring," Lawing said. "I don't anticipate him being full speed and ready to go until the fall. He's a smart ballplayer. He really understands the game."

Jonathan Williams, a JUCO transfer prior to last season, will fight for more playing time. He had 13 tackles and one sack last season.

"There's a transition from junior college to Division I college football," Lawing said. "It took him a while to get his feet on the ground. We weren't sure if he was a tackle or an end. We settled on tackle and he did very well and made plays. He's had an outstanding off-season. It looks like he's added a lot of strength. That should help me be a playmaker."

Marque Hall is listed as the starter at the second defensive tackle spot next to Ajiboye, with mammoth sophomore Kenrick Ellis and redshirt freshman Donte'e Nicholls behind him.

Hall struggled last season to regain the form he showed in 2005 and the first couple of games of 2006 prior to sustaining torn knee ligaments against Georgia. Hall had 22 tackles and five quarterback hurries, second most on the club, in 2007.

"He didn't have a good year last year compared to his start the year before," Lawing said. "He knows that. Marque and I have talked about it. I expect him to have a heck of a senior year. Marque is an outstanding individual. I know he'll work hard."

Hall underwent minor surgery following the 2007 season and should be back to full health shortly.

"Marque wasn't 100 percent last year," Lawing said. "The knee was still bothering him. They went in and cleaned it up after last season. I think he'll be close to 100 percent by the time we start spring. If he's not, we'll hold him until he is."

Nicholls redshirted last season and is still adjusting to the demands of major college football.

"Donte'e has to come out and prove himself," Lawing said. "He has to get his conditioning level to where it needs to be. I'm not pleased with it. He has to start realizing it's not high school ball. He's not necessarily the biggest guy out there. Spring is very important for him. He has to come and have a heck of a spring and a heck of a fall, or he's looking at being the scout team player of the week next year."

Ellis began to make strides in the latter stages of last season, and even started the Clemson game. But he has been suspended for the first three games of the 2008 season for violating university policy. However, he will be a full-time participant in the spring.

"Just because he won't play in the first three games shouldn't affect him in the spring," Lawing said. "But he is going to miss three games of experience and that's not good. But we have other guys who can step up and play."

Ellis continues to battle weight problems. He's currently listed at 353 pounds, about 25 pounds more than his playing weight last fall. Ellis wasn't allowed to participate in practice during his first fall camp in 2006 because he was overweight.

With so many players now, Lawing anticipates the competition will be keen this spring along the defensive line.

"Our players know they have to come to work every day," Lawing said. "I hold my players accountable for three things on the football field - their knowledge, their attitude and their effort. That's what they control. In the past, I've had to control it with some players because there wasn't enough competition. Hopefully, we'll be more accountable in those three areas year."

Ladi Ajiboye
Kenrick Ellis**
Clifton Geathers
Marque Hall
Jordin Lindsey
Byron McKnight
Donte'e Nicholls
Eric Norwood
Nathan Pepper
Travian Robertson
Jonathan Williams

** Suspended For First Three Games Of 2008 Season.

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