By all accounts from South Carolina State head football Coach Pough and his defensive staff, the 2017 Bulldogs appear to be solid along the defensive front and at the linebacker position.
But there is some pause for concern when it comes to the S.C. State secondary, usually the last line of defense.
Two 2016 starters — All-MEAC safety Phillip Henry, the 2016 leader in interceptions (six) and pass breakups (10), and cornerback Marquise Jones -- have graduated, leaving some big shoes to fill and somewhat of a scramble to establish the depth needed at defensive back, according to Pough.
“Not having a talent like Henry is a big loss for our team, and Jones was a good player for us as well,” Pough said. “We have our work cut out for us to try and get close (talent-wise) to where we were last year.”
Strong safety Jason Baxter (6-2, 185 Gr.), a 2016 All-MEAC second-team selection and a 2017 preseason first-team choice, is one of two starters returning in the secondary. Baxter was third on the team in total tackles last season with 55, including 4.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions. The Manning native is playing his final year of eligibility as a graduate student.
Devondre Powell (5-8, 180 r-Sr.), who shared the starting duties at cornerback in 2016, also returns and will man the boundary corner position. Powell, along with Baxter, will provide the leadership in the secondary. The Miami native was named to the 2017 preseason All-MEAC second team.
Joining them as projected starters in the defensive backfield will be Kendric Gathers (5-10, 190 Jr.) at free safety and Alex Brown (6-0, 170 r-Jr.), of nearby Holly Hill and a Lake Marion High School product at the field corner post. Both Gathers and Brown started several contests last year and give the Bulldogs a solid starting four in 2017.
“Our top four guys in the secondary are as good as we’ve had around here the last few years,” Pough said. “But, depth, or the lack there of, is the real issue for us. We are hoping that some of our young players can develop quickly. Some of these young guys are very talented but you are always concerned when you have to rely on young players, even if they have a great deal of talent.”
Khaliq Anthony (6-1, 188 r-So.) of Norway and Hunter-Kinard-Tyler High School has been a major contributor in the secondary as a reserve. He has been slowed by injuries in fall camp but should provide quality depth and be an impact player in the 2017 secondary if healthy.
To help out in the secondary, the Bulldogs have moved former wide receiver and quarterback Mykal Moody (5-10, 180 r-Sr.) to the secondary. Moody, a Conway native, has played wide receiver most of his Bulldog career. But last season, in his only start at quarterback, he dazzled the crowd with an impressive performance in directing a 28-7 win over Bethune-Cookman in the season finale. Pough and the defensive staff are hoping his talent will enable him to be an impact player in the secondary this season. He’s listed on the depth chart as the top backup to Powell at cornerback.
After the aforementioned players, the S.C. State staff will have to rely on those young talented players Pough made mention of earlier.
Defensive assistant Darrian Wilson, a former S.C. State defensive back and student coach who is back with the Bulldogs after a short stint as a junior college assistant, expects the young and talented Bulldog players to step in and provide the depth the staff is seeking.
Wilson, who is working alongside defensive coordinator Tommy Restivo, who has rejoined the Bulldog staff after a year away, expressed guarded optimism about the group.
“We are hoping that the young players will step in and perform well enough to provide depth and keep us competitive in the secondary when we have to rotate players in,” Wilson said. “Our overall expectation is that they will.”
Two of them — Zafir Kelly (6-1, 170 Fr.), a true freshman of Columbia and Irmo High School, and Xzavien Burson (5-1, 18 r-Fr.) of Sumter — are having great fall camps, Wilson said. A third, Chris Adams (6-0, 190 r-So.) of Spring Valley High in Columbia, is also expected to contribute.
Pough said expects the young players in the secondary to deliver.
“They have to grow up quickly,” he said. “They have been giving a great effort in practice, but they are inexperienced, mostly freshman playing college football for the first time. And we know what can happen when you rely on freshmen.
“So it’s important that we stay healthy in the secondary. And equally important, we need our front line to play well, to get a big push up front to provide the DBs some measure of protection.”
- SPECIAL TEAMS — S.C. State is expecting more consistency with special teams this season, especially in the kicking game, as placekicker Tyler Scandrett (5-9, 170 Sr.) and punter Jerome Pettiway (6-4, 220 Sr.) return for their final season.
Today’s column concludes the series previewing the 2017 S.C. State Bulldogs by position. Revisit the entire series with this column at TheTandD.com.
Bill Hamilton retired as sports information director at S.C. State after nearly four decades in the post. He is a member of the MEAC Hall of Fame and the recipient of numerous other honors for his service to the university and journalism. He reports on S.C. State as a correspondent for The Times and Democrat.