USC's defensive unit depleted by injuries
COLUMBIA -- No football coach wants to go into a game without half of his starters. But a practice? That's not such a bad thing, perhaps.
With a wave of gold, non-contact jerseys surrounding him on the sideline this spring, Ellis Johnson has gotten a longer look at a handful of youngsters who could see time in the future for the Gamecocks -- and perhaps even this fall.
"This is their time to take advantage of the reps and get better and give us some depth that we really need," said Johnson, the defensive head coach at USC. "We're trying to evaluate players, see who's made that step."
After initially saying he wouldn't single out those players, Johnson did name a few.
Here are a few Gamecocks he's been closely following the past month, with Saturday's spring game on the horizon as a final exam of sorts.
Johnson has had his eye on redshirt freshman Corey Addison to back up DeVonte Holloman at strong safety; sophomore Kenny Davis to help at the thin tackle spot; redshirt freshman Jimmy Legree to bolster the cornerback position.
And then there's linebacker, where Josh Dickerson, Qua Gilchrist and Tony Straughter -- all JUCO products -- are working to strive toward playing time. Sophomore Quin Smith has also captured Johnson's attention.
Those players are seeing more time because of injuries, and subsequent recovery plans, to several veterans.
Chris Culliver, who's moving from safety to corner, is sitting for the second straight spring because of shoulder surgery.
Defensive end Cliff Matthews, probably the defense's most talented player, also had minor shoulder surgery and is sidelined.
Middle linebacker Rodney Paulk is probably healthy enough to go after tearing up his knee in the season opener last fall, but coaches are being naturally careful with him.
Defensive tackle Travian Robertson tore knee ligaments a few weeks later, during the season, so he is also on the shelf.
Additionally, a couple of other defenders have been slowed by injuries sustained this spring.
Defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye injured his foot. He's been limited and will likely sit out Saturday's scrimmage.
So, that is five projected starters, including Ajiboye, who have had their springs eliminated or limited by injuries.
Something similar was happening a year ago, so this isn't completely new territory for Johnson, who still fashioned a strong defense in 2009 despite losing players such as Paulk and Robertson midstream.
"It's two years in a row we've had to put off until the fall of figuring out who we are and what can we do and who our best 11 (is) and who's our next 11," Johnson said. "It's going to be probably two weeks into the fall until we get a feel for who we are as a unit."
Consider this: The second-team defensive line is comprised of walk-on reserve long snappers (Matt Grooms, Walker Inabinet and Chris Vaughn).
Grooms, you might recall, is the former Marines engineer who was once stationed in Kuwait. He didn't see any combat duty, but he has a different concept of linemen than most college kids.
"Just being in Iraq, that's tough enough anyway," Lawing said. "I can't even imagine."
And things are so dire that Saturday's spring "game" requires those quotation marks around the word game. The Gamecocks are examining an abbreviated scrimmage, with two 12-minute periods that are normally timed. Then there'll be a running-time 12-minute third period.
And that's it.
"We're hoping to get in a good half," Steve Spurrier said.
It's a scaled-back spring with the focus on the summer and, ultimately, the fall. Johnson would surely rather have those banged-up players in September than this week.
Senior receiver Dion LeCorn suffered a lacerated kidney in practice Tuesday. He'll miss this week's spring scrimmage, but is expected to be fine by the start of the season.
LeCorn broke his leg on the final play of last year's spring game, and he struggled to recover during the 2009 season. Receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. has said LeCorn is his best blocking receiver.