April 21, 2008

Spring Recap: Depth No Problem For D-Line

Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson remarked late in spring practice that the defensive line had become the strength of South Carolina's improving defense.

At that moment, defensive line coach Brad Lawing knew all of the hard work he and his players had put in over the last two years had paid off.

Without question, the Gamecock defensive line is one of the best stocked on the team with several all-SEC candidates. But Lawing warns they must still perform on the field.

He had as many as 11 players to coach up during spring practice, and that number will increase to 16 in the fall with the arrival of five talented freshmen.

"We have a lot of guys but they still have to become good players," Lawing said. "We've worked hard at recruiting. You still have to produce. Some of these guys still have a ways to go."

Like Johnson, Lawing isn't mesmerized by spring statistics. He refuses to fall into the trap of believing that a good spring will automatically translate into a good fall.

"Some guys may have separated themselves from some others, but everything is written in pencil after spring," Lawing said. "We still have the summer and then pre-season (camp) in August. It all factors in. Just because someone performed well in the spring doesn't guarantee success in the fall. They have to carry it on through every day."

Although Lawing was hesitant to name a starting unit until after watching the spring game film, he mentioned the name of one definite starter - sophomore tackle Ladi Ajiboye.

Ajiboye enjoyed a solid spring and has emerged as USC's top defensive linemen, Lawing said. He finished with 39 tackles and three sacks in 2007, and was named to multiple Freshman All-America and Freshman All-SEC teams.

If his performance in the spring is an accurate indication of things to come, don't look for a sophomore slump from the Atlanta native.

"Right now, he's probably our most dominant player," Lawing said.

While Ajiboye's current stature is hardly surprising considering his past performance, the rapid rise of Jonathan Williams could be. Williams, a JUCO transfer, had 13 tackles last year. He was honored as the Most Improved Defensive Tackle during halftime of Saturday's Garnet and Black game.

Williams entered the spring listed as the backup to Ajiboye and solidified his position there. He could also challenge for the starting tackle job opposite Ajiboye in the fall.

"Jonathan Williams had a good spring and did some real good things for us," Lawing said.

Shortly after spring practice started, Johnson shifted Eric Norwood to outside linebacker, believing his skills better suited him for that position.

He was replaced on the defensive line by sophomore Cliff Matthews, who started nine games at outside linebacker last season and finished with 26 tackles.

It was a fair in Lawing's view.

"Cliff Matthews had an outstanding spring," Lawing said. "I learned a lot more about (Williams and Matthews) over the last 15 practices. But that's what I expect from them. We have high expectations for our players."

Matthews, named to the Freshman All-SEC team, captured the Everyday Effort Award during halftime.

Based on his performance this spring following his return to defensive end, Matthews fits perfectly at defensive end.

"We've got him back at his natural position," Lawing said. "I think he can be a big-time defensive end."

Jordin Lindsey showed this spring he's ready to jump back into the fray after missing the 2007 season for academic reasons. He started six games and had 37 tackles in 2006.

"He adds some toughness to our defense and our team," Lawing said. "Anytime you get a guy like that back, it's good to see."

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

Sophomore Clifton Geathers entered the spring as a backup defensive end and he appears to have maintained that position. Travian Robertson, another sophomore, is second on the depth chart behind Lindsey.

Lawing acknowledges both players were rushed last season due to USC's lack of depth at the defensive end position. Right now, both players have shown they're capable of contributing this fall.

"Both Travian and Clifton needed to be redshirted last season because they weren't ready," Lawing said. "But we played them because that's all we had."

Geathers was a highly coveted prospect out of Carvers Bay High School when he initially committed to Georgia two years ago. But he signed with USC following a semester at Hargrave Military Academy in the fall of 2006.

Geathers' upside is limitless, Lawing said.

"Clifton has the most potential of all those guys," Lawing said. "He just came to the table when he got here with the least amount of football knowledge. Everyday has been a tremendous learning experience for him. He's still learning. One day, and I hope that day is sooner rather than later, we're going to look back and say Clifton Geathers was the best one. He has that kind of ability. He has a great attitude and he works hard. He's just getting better and better."

Robertson appeared in all 12 games last season and was the only true freshman in the starting lineup for the season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette.

The competition during fall camp for the starting role at the defensive tackle position alongside Ajiboye in the Aug. 28 season opener against N.C. State could be keen.

In addition to Williams, the contenders include Nathan Pepper and Marque Hall.

"We have some depth there (at defensive tackle)," Lawing said. "I have guys who can play and there's competition. That's what we've been trying to get to for the last couple of years. Guys aren't playing just because they're the only one. I feel good about the guys we have at defensive tackle right now."

Pepper, who suffered a devastating season-ending knee injury in the S.C. State game last September, spent the entire spring continuing his rehabilitation. He spent most of the practice sessions jogging and working on agility drills.

"I'm anxious to get Pepper back in the fall and see where he is," Lawing said. "Nathan is probably our best technician. Hopefully, he will have a full recovery back from his knee injury. If he does, he'll have an opportunity to step in and play a major role."

Pepper had played well in the first three games last season before he blew out a knee while scoring a touchdown following an interception against S.C. State.

Pepper played briefly at defensive end last season when USC went to a three-man front, but Lawing doesn't see that happening again this year.

While the spring allowed players like Ajiboye and Williams to shine, it wasn't as kind to senior Marque Hall, who is still struggling to regain his form from the knee injury that prematurely ended his 2006 season after two games.

Hall underwent minor surgery following the 2007 season to help strengthen his knee.

"He's not back to where he was before he got hurt two years ago," Lawing said. "If he wants to finish up his career here like I know he wants to, he has to really come around with that knee."

Redshirt sophomore Kenrick Ellis reported for spring practice weighing about 350 pounds. Lawing wants him to lose about 25 pounds before the start of the season.

"Kenrick can play at 350, but he can play a heck of a lot better if he's about 325, 330," Lawing said. "He knows that."

Ellis will have an additional period of time to drop down to Lawing's preferred weight since he must sit out the first three games of the 2008 season for violating university policy.

Ellis has made tremendous strides since first arriving at USC in the summer of 2006. After showing up for fall camp that year significantly overweight and with a poor attitude, Ellis has improved his work ethic and appears on the brink of becoming a solid contributor.

"He took a long time to develop mentally and mature," Lawing said. "His first year here, he was just trying to survive every day. He was overweight and in poor condition. He didn't have a competitive bone in his body. Midway through last season, after sticking a foot up his rear end, he finally started to come around and get better. He got some opportunities and he finished the season on a good note.

"But he's still got a long ways to go. He has a lot of potential. He's trying now. He's a pleasure to coach. I didn't enjoy coaching Kenrick his first two years because he didn't work hard. I have no compassion for kids who don't work hard. But now he's learned how to do that. He can be a very good player."

Redshirt freshmen Donte'e Nicholls and Byron McKnight both face long odds to see significant action this season. They each had two tackles in Saturday's spring game.

"They're going to be good players if they work," Lawing said. "Nicholls has a conditioning issue right now. McKnight has to get stronger. He has a strength issue. But both things are correctable. They can be good players."

Ladi Ajiboye (So.)
Ronald Byrd (Fr.)
Kenny Davis (Fr.)
Kenrick Ellis** (RSo.)
Clifton Geathers (So.)
Marque Hall (Sr.)
Jarriel King (Fr.)
Jordin Lindsey (Sr.)
Byron McKnight (RFr.)
Donte'e Nicholls (RFr.)
Eric Norwood (Jr.)
Nathan Pepper (Jr.)
Travian Robertson (So.)
Chaz Sutton (Fr.)
Devin Taylor (Fr.)
Jonathan Williams (Sr.)

** Suspended For First Three Games Of 2008 Season.

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