COLUMBIA — Even before preseason practices began, South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward spoke glowingly about his redshirt freshman cornerback, Ahmad Christian.

“We feel like Ahmad made enough progress in the spring that he could help us,” Ward said.

Indeed, Christian was named USC’s most improved defensive back during spring practices. He has good size for a corner (5-10 and 189 pounds) and is a talented enough athlete that he was a late cut from USC baseball’s 34-man roster this spring. Coming out of high school, Christian was ranked the No. 39 “athlete” in his class by Rivals.com.

The starting corner spots are already occupied by sophomore Victor Hampton and fifth-year senior Akeem Auguste. But Auguste missed all of last season with a foot injury and has dealt with a groin injury this month. If something happens to him this seathis this season, Christian could be the next man up. Christian and junior Jimmy Legree are currently listed as the backup corners.

Even if Hampton and Auguste start all season, USC’s coaches see a role for Christian this fall, perhaps in the nickel package, and definitely in the future.

The Gamecocks are trying to build on a 2011 season in which they ranked No. 2 nationally with 131.7 passing yards allowed per game and No. 6 with 19 interceptions. They lost corner Stephon Gilmore, who left early for the NFL, and neither Hampton nor Auguste started last season, though Auguste started in 2009 and 2010. There might not be a Gilmore in this group, but new secondary coach Grady Brown likes the depth that Christian provides.

“I think Ahmad really spent time in the offseason,” Brown said. “We would text back and forth and he would tell me about how he’s watching film and watching some of the teaching tapes that we have on the different techniques and defenses. So he kind of connected the dots on his own this summer. I think he’ll be a really good player for us. There’s definitely a spot for Ahmad in this secondary. I think we’ll all see him play a pivotal role in us being successful this year.”

English pushing for playing time

One of the pleasant surprises of preseason practices for defensive line coach Brad Lawing has been true freshman end Darius English, who has a tall, lean build similar to what Devin Taylor looked like when he arrived at USC.

Taylor redshirted as a freshman in 2008, but English, who is 6-6 and 215 pounds, might not.

Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney are the starting ends, and the backups entering the preseason were Chaz Sutton and Deon Green at one spot and Aldrick Fordham and Gerald Dixon at the other.

But English is making a push for playing time in Lawing’s rotation.

“He’s a guy that’s very talented, and I’ve just got to decide what to do with him,” Lawing said.

“If he can help us win a ball game, he’s going to play. I’ve got to determine that. I don’t want to burn a year just for some snaps, but if he can help us win, we’re about winning now.”

English was ranked by Rivals as the No. 22 weak-side defensive end in his class. He has impressed Lawing most with his speed. During Saturday’s first scrimmage, English made the mistake of jumping toward the inside of the line, which let the running back scoot free. But English still recovered and tracked down the running back.

“That’s pretty talented,” Lawing said.

Injury report

Victory Hampton (bruised quad) and true freshman tailback Mike Davis (bruised knee) both returned to practice Monday. Davis missed Saturday’s scrimmage. Tailback Brandon Wilds is battling for playing time behind Marcus Lattimore, but sprained his ankle in the scrimmage and will miss about a week, said coach Steve Spurrier. But Spurrier isn’t concerned about how the injury will affect Wilds’ chances of earning playing time. “We know what he can do,” Spurrier said. “Brandon is a very good running back. We’re OK at running back.”

Final open scrimmage

USC will hold a scrimmage Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at Williams-Brice Stadium. That will be the Gamecocks’ final publicly open practice or scrimmage of the preseason.