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Defense in Garnet & Blue game 2019

A host of Bulldog defenders, including LaSamuel Davis (6) and Jeblonski Green (34) bring down quarterback Tyrece Nick (3) during the 2019 Garnet & Blue Spring Game in April.

A quick glance at the South Carolina State defensive depth chart shows that a veteran, deep and talented defensive unit will take the field when Coach Buddy Pough’s team opens the 2019 season at home against nationally ranked Wofford Aug. 31. Kickoff is 6 p.m.

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The Bulldogs return a great nucleus on defense, including nine starters. The defensive line, despite the loss of top pass rusher Damu Ford, will have loads of experience, should be better against the run and anchor the overall S.C. State defensive effort. The linebacker corps returns intact and is expected to make great strides as a group, while a youthful secondary will rely on outstanding talent to make up for its lack of experience.

The Bulldogs will have talented depth all over the field and should see little drop-off in talent level when Pough and his staff have to turn to the bench.

Bulldogs continue preseason drills during morning practice

“I think we have more depth on defense of any squad I’ve had since taking over,” said Pough, who is in his 18th season. “We have been helped by a few talented graduate transfers with maturity, but I think the key for us this season is we have a lot of talent and experience on a defensive unit that has exhibited a lot of cohesiveness and leadership.”

Up front, the Bulldog defensive charge will be led by defensive ends Bruce Johnson (6-2, 225 r-Sr., Emerald, S.C.) and Xavier Johnson (6-1, 240 r-So., Lake View), nose tackle Tyrell Goodwin (6-0, 265 Sr., Columbia), Rod Perry 96-2, 310, red-shirt junior, Knightdale, N.C.), the likely candidate to take over as the top passer rusher for the departed Ford, Demingus Wilson (6-4, 280 r-Jr., Bennettsville), and tackle Paul McKeiver (6-4, 290 r-Sr., Batesburg).

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Top reserves Jemetre Blair (6-1, 225 r-Jr., Winston-Salem, N.C.), and Lasamuel Davis (6-4, 225, r-Sr., Bamberg), along with the return of massive nose tackle Robert "Shaq" Crouch (6-4, 420 r-Sr., Johnsonville) who missed the entire 2018 campaign after having a great 2017 season, give S.C. State one of its deepest front lines in some time.

“We've got veterans everywhere on the defensive line and their experience should be a difference-maker for us,” Pough said.

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The Bulldog linebacker group has everyone from the 2018 team back and should provide tremendous support for the guys up front. Without the great Darius Leonard – the 2018 National Football League’s Defensive Rookie of the Year – last season, S.C. State found itself struggling a bit at the linebacker position. But that should change in 2019.

“Our linebackers are experienced, smart and should be an impact unit for us this season,” Pough said. “We have some real talent there.”

Leading the charge at linebacker for the Bulldogs will be top returnees Chad Gilchrist (6-2, 220 r-Sr., Johnston), Johnell Brown (6-3, 190 r-Sr., St. Stephen) Lane Jones (6-2, 185 Sr., Westminster) and Cornelius Walker (6-1, 212 Sr., Orangeburg). Quality depth will be provided by Jablonski Green (6-3, 230 r-Fr., Lamar) and Andre Brown (6-2, 215 r-So., Summerton).

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The S.C. State secondary was one of the youngest and least-experienced in the MEAC last season, however, the youthful, talented group was pressed into playing, some as starters, and responded well.

Cornerback Alex Brown, an NFL free agent battling to catch on in the league (was with Jets most recently), and safety Kendric Gathers will be the only faces missing from last year’s unit, forecasting vast improvement from the unit.

There were times during the 2018 campaign when three of the four starters on the field for the Bulldogs in the defensive backfield were either freshmen, redshirt freshmen or redshirt sophomores. They held their own in most instances, but more importantly, they garnered a wealth of experience -- often under pressure – and will bring that experience to the field this year.

“The secondary is the least-experienced position on our team this season,” Pough said. “But, at the same time, it’s probably the most-talented also. We played a lot of young players at the position last season and most of the time, they did pretty good. I expect to see a lot of improvement in this area.

As noted by Pough, it was a young group in the defensive secondary last season, but most are bigger, stronger, and with loads of talent this time out.

The top returnees at cornerback include Decobie Durant (5-11, 175 r-So, Lamar), a starter last season, Scotty Robinson (6-0, 175 r-Fr., Rock Hill) and Tim Ewing (5-11, 170 r-So., Greenwood). Expected to provide top reserve duty are Demarkis Doe (6-3, 185 So., Williston) and newcomers Deondre Daniels (5-11, 195 Fr., Goose Creek) and Vernon Grier (5-11, 180 Gr., Charlotte, N.C.), a graduate transfer whose dad was a one-time starter for the Bulldogs.

Expected to be among the top performers at safety for S.C. State are Duane Nichols (6-0, 210 r-So., Lake View), a starter last season, Jaylen Evans (6-0, 180 r-So., Hartsville), Zafir Kelly (6-1, 170 Jr., Columbia) and Khalif Anthony (6-1, 180 r-Sr., Norway), along with The Citadel transfer Jalen Barr (6-0, 170 Sr., Lake City) and Donte Anthony (6-0, 210 r-Fr., Fountain Inn).

B.J. Davis (6-2, 190 r-Fr., Blair), Jayden Brunson (5-10, 195 So., Blythewood), and Chris Simmons (5-11, 185 r-Fr., Orangeburg) will rotate at the nickel position.

“We were forced to play a lot of young players in the secondary last season, but it was not a hard decision because we saw how talented they were,” Pough said. “And that decision should help us by leaps and bounds this year. I feel good about our expectations from this group this season.”

Among the specialists, S.C. State returnee Cliff Benjamin (6-1, 170 r-Sr., Santee), who split the punting duties with Jerome Pettiway last season, is expected to be among the top punters in the MEAC. Long snapper Josh Pringle, who has been solid for the Bulldogs, is back as well.

Dillon Bredesen (5-10, 160 So., Cantonment, Fla.), the primary placekicker last year, also returns and will have a solid backup in Austin Kemp (6-1, 175 r-Fr., Liberty), who will also play behind Benjamin at the punting position.

Pough, never one to sandbag, has stated more than once that he is anxious to get the 2019 season underway, despite the Bulldogs having to face the nation’s ninth-ranked team in the Wofford Terriers in the season opener.

“I think our team is going to be pretty good and I’m ready to get it on,” the Bulldog mentor said recently. “We open up against one of the nation’s top teams and one that has been a perennial participant in the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision), certainly a great challenge for our team. But it will also be a measuring stick of just how good we can be and what our fans and supporters can expect from S.C. State.”

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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.

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