Injuries have taken toll on South Carolina’s defense
Will Muschamp is a coach who loves his mantras.
One of his favorites is being stretched to the breaking point as South Carolina football moves into the final stages of the 2018 season: Man down, man up.
The idea behind the phrase, that injuries will not be excuses for the Gamecocks and backups must be ready to play at a high level at a moment’s notice, is a nice one, but the number and severity of injuries USC has sustained this season is putting it to the test.
Defensive linemen Bryson Allen-Williams, D.J. Wonnum, Aaron Sterling, Keir Thomas, J.J. Enagbare and Daniel Fennell and defensive backs J.T. Ibe, Nick Harvey, Jamyest Williams, Javon Charleston, Jaylin Dickerson and Jaycee Horn have all missed time with injuries. Depending on how you count it, that’s six to eight starters and several key backups Muschamp has been missing on defense.
So no excuses or not, when he was asked after Saturday’s 56-35 loss to Clemson whether the injuries impacted the defensive performance or even the plays he could call, Muschamp had a sharp reply.
“What do you think? That’s a dumb question,” he said.
A few seconds later, the Gamecocks coach apologized for losing his temper, but there was no mistaking the frustration both Muschamp and junior linebacker T.J. Brunson, the only defensive player who spoke to reporters, felt after the loss about all the injuries.
“It is what it is, that’s where we are right now. We’re a little short on defense, and it’s limited us call-wise. At one point, I think we had six true freshmen on the field ... they’re going to be good players, I just wish we weren’t putting them in this situation,” Muschamp said. “It’s not fair for them, but that’s where we are right now.”
Mentally, there has been a toll to watching so many of his teammates go down, Brunson said.
“It sucks at the end of the day. It’s a contact sport and a lot of injuries aren’t preventable, but it really does suck. At the end of the day, you kinda know what you signed up for. Those guys are still working hard to get back, but your body’s only going to heal so fast,” Brunson said before trailing off.
And while Brunson repeatedly said he was proud of the unit’s effort and that there was no place he’d rather be, he also admitted that there is a mental challenge in trusting young players he hasn’t spent much time practicing or playing alongside.
“You always say next man up, next man in, but at the end of the day that still hurts you. It hurts the defense to have those guys that you count on to be out there and help make plays not be out there. It’s hard because you’re worrying about the next guy who comes in and if he’s gonna do his job or not,” Brunson said. “But that’s where that trust part comes in, the preparation, the meeting times and everything. So you kinda just know the main guys, but the backup guy, whoever else has to come in is still expected to play up to par.”
As a result of that challenge, Brunson said he has to remind himself not to do too much when he’s the most experienced player left in the lineup. That can be easier said than done, though, and will both Brunson and Muschamp expressed optimism about how this experience will help underclassmen down the road, in the moment it can be taxing for everyone involved, including the freshmen.
“Certainly down the road you’re going to benefit from it, you get better by playing on Saturday, But it’s tough sometimes to put them in the situations they’re in right now,” Muschamp said. “We got some guys that are doing some things for the first time because of where we are roster-wise, and we’re just struggling.”