College Sports

Loaded D-line means no start guaranteed

COLUMBIA -- By all rights, Eric Norwood should feel secure in his starting position on the South Carolina football team. Last year he tied for the team lead with seven sacks and was named one of the best freshmen at his position in the country, among other accolades.

So that earns him a measure of security, right? Asked that question after a recent practice, Norwood looked away and smiled.

"But I've still got Cliff Matthews pushing me," he said. "I've got Travian Robertson on the other side."

He stopped there, but he could have ticked off a few more names. As Norwood is keenly aware, an influx of new talent means no one is assured a starting spot, but nearly everyone is assured playing time.

That means constant competition, which the coaching staff hopes means a much-improved unit.

Last year, South Carolina ranked ninth in the SEC in run defense, yielding an average of 146.8 yards per game. The Gamecocks ranked fifth in the league with 31 sacks, but only 11.5 of those came from current defensive linemen. Casper Brinkley (seven sacks) and Lemuel Jeanpierre (two sacks) have moved to other positions.

But depth will be the least of the concerns.

Matthews, Robertson and Clifton Geathers are true freshmen who will see playing time on the ends. True freshman Ladi Ajiboye is listed as a starter at defensive tackle, but that is subject to daily evaluation.

As many as 13 defensive linemen could see action in next week's opener against Louisiana-Lafayette. Defensive line coach Brad Lawing envisions a constant rotation of players, half on the outside and half on the interior.

The hope is to get a pecking order as they get into game preparation next week. Every game and every practice will be a barometer.

"Everybody's trying to get their starting position," Ajiboye said. "But coach Lawing, he keeps telling us we're going to get our reps in. So no matter what, everybody's going to play. But it's still competition when you get on the field, because everyone wants to start."

The competition increased with the academic uncertainty surrounding senior Jordin Lindsey. The defensive end said he is ready to go. However, the combination of his missing practices and other players' gaining ground means Robertson might have passed him on the depth chart. Senior Ryan Brown, a converted fullback, also has been working with the first and second units.

The interior position battle has been just as intense. Junior Nate Pepper started the preseason as the other starter next to Ajiboye, but junior Marque Hall's return from a season-ending knee injury has him contending for a starting spot. Junior college transfer Jonathan Williams also has gotten in the mix.

Only end Byron McKnight and tackle Donte'e Nicholls are scheduled to redshirt.

"That's the great thing about having some depth: There's a lot of competition," Lawing said. "They know one bad practice and your status could fall in a hurry."

But does that mean more sack production? Does it mean a better run defense?

Lawing said he has confidence in the run-stopping abilities of the interior linemen, especially Ajiboye, Hall and Pepper. When it comes to the pass, the overall goal is affect the quarterback on every play, whether it is a sack or just a constant rush that leaves him tired by the time the fourth quarter arrives.

South Carolina still doesn't know who will do the most damage among the 13 defensive line candidates. It just hopes the fight for playing time will maximize the talents of enough to do the job.

"It's just like coach (Steve) Spurrier said: 'Some of those guys who started last year might not start this year,'" Norwood said. "So competition, it brings the best out of everybody.