Prior to the start of preseason football drills on Aug. 2, the consensus among the S.C. State defensive staff was that the front line would be the strength of the Bulldog defense in 2017. Nearly two weeks later, and after about 10 practices, that opinion has not changed.

But another group receiving a lot of praise is the S.C. State linebackers who, throughout camp, have demonstrated they are not very far behind the defensive line in talent and expectations. Two players in last year’s starting rotation – Tyler Smith and Shaquan Brock – have graduated and will be missed. But the staff is not expecting any drop-off in performance or execution.

“Between the linebackers and the defensive front,” they make up the strength of our football team this year,” Bulldogs head coach Buddy Pough said. “If our linebackers play up to their potential, we should be pretty good overall on defense and give our opponents a little something to think about.

“The depth of the group is still being developed, but we expect this position to play at a very high level.”

Jonathan Saxon, who coaches the Bulldog linebackers, shares Pough’s optimism when he talks about his group.

“We lost two of our top performers from last year’s rotation, but their loss, although significant, is not expected to be that much of a setback,” Saxon said. “Two seniors are in our returning group and they are joined by some talented redshirts and young players ready to contribute.

“Several of the young players got on the field last season and have shown a lot improvement in camp thus far. One of them contributed as a true freshman last year and several of the redshirts are coming off successful springs and are also enjoying strong camps.”

Spearheading the S.C. State linebackers will be veteran Darius Leonard (6-3, 230 r-Sr.), a 2016 All-American and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Sheridan Broadcasting Network and Box-to-Row.

The Lake View native, a preseason All-American and the MEAC preseason Defensive Player of the Year for a second consecutive campaign, should become the Bulldogs’ all-time leader in tackles in the 2017 season opener against Southern Sept. 3 at Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Leonard, who led the MEAC in total tackles last season with 124, needs just four tackles to eclipse the all-time Bulldog mark of 284 set by LB Donovan Richard (2008-2011).

The other senior who will be playing alongside Leonard is Dayshawn Taylor (5-10, 240 r-Sr.) of Lincolnton, Ga. The first team All-MEAC performer last year, and 2017 preseason selection, was second on the Bulldog squad last year with 83 total tackles.

Pough told the gathering at the recent MEAC Football Roundup that Taylor “would be the best linebacker in the MEAC, if he were not playing alongside the best linebacker in the conference (Leonard, of course).”

Although the duo of Leonard and Taylor will provide the leadership in the linebacker corps, two other veterans – Greg Newell (6-1, 235 r-Sr.) and Bruce Johnson (6-2, 225 Jr.) – bolster the position, depending upon what defensive formation the Bulldogs line up in. Newell and Johnson, along with Damu Ford (5-11, 240 r-Jr.), will line up outside on the defensive line at times, or as a third linebacker in the “Joke” position, adding strength to the S.C. State coverage.

And hoping to establish themselves as impact players for the Bulldogs at the linebacker position this season are young players Lane Jones (6-2, 185 So.), who saw action in all 11 contests as a true freshman and played a major role on special teams in 2016; Johnell Brown (6-3, 190 r-So.), who got some key snaps and was also an outstanding performer on special teams; Chad Gilchrist (6-1, 205 r-Fr.), one of the top prep defensive players in the Palmetto State as a senior in 2015; and Cornelius Walker (6-1, 212 r-Fr.) of nearby Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School, who was redshirted last season but is coming off a very productive spring.

Jones and Brown are expected to be the top backups to Leonard and Taylor on the depth chart, but they are being pushed by strong camp performances from Gilchrist and Walker, whose names – when spoken – bring a twinkle to the eye of both Pough and Saxon.

“Hey, the defensive line is certainly projected to be the strength of the defense,” Pough said. “But the group that is making strides fast is the linebackers. We can almost go three deep at linebacker and all of our second-level guys are good players who can run around and make plays.”

Saxon agrees.

“Our linebackers are having a good camp,” he said. “I’ve been most impressed by the maturity some of the young players have demonstrated.

"They have played at a very high level (albeit against Bulldog teammates) and I’m hopeful we can carry that level of play throughout camp and into our opening game against Southern.”

A lot of Bulldog fans are hopeful as well!

Next week, we conclude our review of the S.C. State defense with a look at the Bulldog secondary.

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.