COLUMBIA — Aldrick Fordham got the good news before spring practices, when South Carolina defensive line coach Brad Lawing told him that, at long last, he was moving from tackle to end, his natural position.
“I was excited,” said Fordham, a senior. “That’s where I’ve always wanted to be at the whole time. I didn’t tell (Lawing) that. But I think he realized that’s probably what I would prefer to do.”
Now, Fordham is trying to turn his enthusiasm into a significant role in Lawing’s rotation. Though the starting end spots are filled by Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney, Lawing will rotate his linemen.
Moreover, Lawing plans to sometimes use three or even four ends at a time in pass-rush situations, where speed is required. That provides opportunities for second-stringers like Fordham. He is also capable of playing tackle in these packages, as end Melvin Ingram did last season and Clowney will do this season, to exploit mismatches with slower offensive guards.
While Taylor and Clowney will get most of the attention as USC’s primary pass rushers, it is important for the Gamecocks to have a reliable third end — Clowney’s role last season — so opponents can’t focus as heavily on stopping just Taylor and Clowney in the three- and four-end alignments. Chaz Sutton entered the preseason listed as the other backup end.
New defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward favors a more aggressive blitzing approach than his predecessor, Ellis Johnson, so quickly getting to the quarterback will be paramount this season, lest USC’s secondary be left in one-on-one coverage too often.
Fordham has the most experience of all the reserve ends. He started six games last season before true freshman Kelcy Quarles took over for the final six. Quarles, who is 6-4 and 286 pounds, is better suited physically to play tackle than Fordham, who is 6-4 and 269 pounds.
Fordham began last season at 270, but the rigors of practices and games caused him to drop to 260 — far too light to play defensive tackle in the Southeastern Conference. Fordham figures he will drop to 260 again, but it won’t matter as much at end as it did at tackle, where he said he felt physically overmatched at times last season.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Fordham said of playing tackle at that weight.
Fordham played end at Timberland High in Jamestown, but moved to tackle immediately upon getting to USC, so his tackle-to-end adjustment now isn’t nearly as challenging as end-to-tackle was during his freshman season.
He tried hard to gain weight that year, but “I didn’t want to put it all on at one time, because then I probably would have slowed down and been a little sluggish.” He played in six games as a freshman, mainly on special teams — a wasted year that Lawing takes blame for.
“I wish he was a redshirt junior instead of a senior, and that’s my fault,” Lawing said.
Fordham wasn’t a significant contributor on defense until last season, when he had nine tackles, including one for a loss, and a fumble recovery. Fordham said he continued to rotate with Quarles and senior Travian Robertson even after Quarles took his starting job. But Fordham struggled in the tight spaces that a tackle must play in.
“I had to wear a neck roll (to avoid stingers) because I was taking a beating,” he said.
The upside is that Fordham is now familiar with tackle and end — an advantage for him as he tries to maximize his final season.
“He knows our scheme inside and out,” Lawing said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in him. He’s always where he’s supposed to be.”
The Gamecocks practiced for two hours on Friday in full pads. Senior cornerback Akeem Auguste, who has been hampered throughout camp with a groin injury, was back on the field and looked healthy. Freshman tight end Kelvin Rainey also practiced, although he wore a yellow “no contact” jersey. Rainey was out a few days after suffering a concussion.
Linebackers coach Kirk Botkin talked about his philosophy after Friday’s practice:
“Stop the run first and foremost. We tell them when they get lined up, if they’re in doubt whether it’s run or pass, we’re going to err on stopping the run first. If you stop the run, you’ve got a chance to win. There are a lot of good teams that can run the football in this league.”
The Gamecocks are scheduled to scrimmage this morning at Williams-Brice Stadium. The 10 a.m. scrimmage is closed to the public.