COLUMBIA — Preparations for the 2013 season get underway in less than a month and anticipation is running high in Columbia, where South Carolina eyes a third consecutive double-digit win season.
As far as the defense is concerned, Jadeveon Clowney has dominated the preseason conversation, but very good players toil on that side of the ball as well.
Here are projections for USC’s top 10 defensive players for the upcoming campaign:
1. Jadeveon Clowney (DE)
This isn’t rocket surgery, as Steve Spurrier is fond of saying. As perhaps the most disruptive defensive player in the country, a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender and a virtual lock for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft, Clowney will surely be the most analyzed, scrutinized, debated, discussed and deliberated player in the country all season, beginning with the nationally televised Thursday season-opener against North Carolina on Aug. 29.
Questions about Clowney’s work rate have popped up in the past, but they’ve dissipated as his production on the field has risen. He enters his final year in Columbia with 21 sacks and 35.5 tackles for loss, and should establish school record in both categories before he walks off the field for the final time. Sit back and enjoy the ride. The national media frenzy over Clowney could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most Gamecock fans.
2. Kelcy Quarles (DT)
Just like Travian Robertson before him, Quarles is often overlooked because of terrific defensive ends on the perimeter. However, the Greenwood native is very good in his own right, rated the No. 5 defensive tackle in the SEC by ESPN.com. He had a solid season in 2012 with 3.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss despite missing two games because of a shoulder injury sustained at LSU. Because of Clowney’s attention-grabbing presence, Quarles shouldn’t encounter many double-teams, making his job to clog up the interior against the run and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks when they drop back to pass that much easier. The biggest question surrounding Quarles is whether he will join Clowney in the NFL in 2014 or stay put for his senior season.
3. Victor Hampton (CB)
Few Gamecock players have trekked as far as Hampton in the past three years in terms of improving his attitude and work ethic, on and off the field. Fearless, physical and brash (in other words, exactly what you want an SEC cornerback to be), Hampton has developed into one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, even though he will occasionally take a risk (gambling for the interception when he shouldn’t) that drives USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward batty. D.J. Swearinger’s departure opens the door for Hampton to become the undisputed emotional leader of the USC secondary.
4. Chaz Sutton (DE)
After four years of first battling injuries and then waiting patiently behind Melvin Ingram, Devin Taylor and Clowney, Sutton finally gets his opportunity to be a full-time starter opposite Clowney. Besides two career starts, Sutton has appeared in 37 games in his career, meaning he could reach the 50-game mark as long as he stays healthy. Sutton quietly had a fantastic season in 2012 with five sacks and seven tackles for loss, setting the stage for what could be an even better senior season. He’s another defensive lineman who could benefit from opposing offensive lines focusing so hard on keeping Clowney under control. The secret is already out, though, on Sutton. ESPN.com rated him as the fourth-best defensive end in the SEC.
5. Brison Williams (SS)
The broken forearm injury that kept Williams sidelined for the first four games of 2011 seems like a distant memory now. As a sophomore last season, he started 12 games at strong safety and should return to that role, although he’s capable of sliding to free safety when called upon. With Kadetrix Marcus (no career starts) and T.J. Gurley (returning from a knee injury) battling for the starting free safety job, Williams’ experience should pay dividends this fall in the rear of the USC defense. He was sixth on the team with 52 tackles in 2012, and collected a key interception in the rivalry win at Clemson. Look for his numbers to increase this season.
6. Jimmy Legree (CB)
One of only four scholarship seniors on the Gamecocks (Sutton is another), Legree bounced between cornerback and free safety early in his career until settling in at the former spot with eight starts, 44 tackles and tying for the team-high with three interceptions in 2012. Legree has steadily improved over the past three years and his knowledge gained from 36 career appearances will prove invaluable with little experienced depth at the cornerback spot.
7. J.T. Surratt (DT)
A fourth-year junior, Surratt appeared destined for a career as a backup until he kicked his game up a notch in the latter stages of the 2012 season and finished with 14 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks (in the Clemson game). He entered the spring atop the depth chart at the defensive tackle spot next to Quarles, and held serve, so he would likely be the starter if USC had to play a game this week. But in order to keep his spot he will have to hold off ...
8. Gerald Dixon Jr. (DT)
After making a quick impression during his redshirt season in 2011, Dixon Jr. served as the third defensive tackle last season, starting two games in place of an injured Quarles. This season, he’ll battle Surratt for the starting job, yet figures to see regular duty throughout the year. In fact, don’t be surprised if Surratt and Dixon Jr. evenly divide snaps when USC doesn’t employ the “Rabbits” package.
9. T.J. Gurley (FS)
Headed for a Freshman All-America season in 2012, Gurley saw his first season of major college football come to a premature end in Gainesville when he suffered a serious knee injury on special teams. He sat out the spring while completing his rehab, but is expected to be ready for the start of preseason camp.
If so, he’ll compete with Marcus for the starting job. Gurley has a bright future as long as he stays out of the infirmary.
10. Kaiwan Lewis (MLB)
Even though his game experience is limited to special teams, Lewis will be thrust into the spotlight this season as the probable starting middle linebacker for a corps undergoing a major overhaul with the departures of five seniors, including Shaq Wilson (he’ll be a graduate assistant in 2013) and Reginald Bowens, both of whom shared snaps in the middle last year.
Lewis made significant progress in the spring and the defensive coaches look for him to continue his growth during the 29 practices in preseason camp.
Ahmad Christian, Cedrick Cooper, Jordan Diggs, Gerald Dixon, Darius English, Sharrod Golightly, T.J. Holloman, Marcus
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