COLUMBIA - On the football field, things come naturally to South Carolina defensive tackle J.T. Surratt.
WHEN: Saturday, noon
WHERE: Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia
At 305 pounds, the senior can shed blockers with ease. He's quick and athletic, explosive enough to cause havoc in the offensive backfield. While Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton were in the spotlight last fall, Surratt quietly pieced together a good season with 33 tackles, four for lost yardage and 1 1/2 sacks.
So Surratt didn't mention technique or fundamentals when asked what he's working to improve this spring. Primed for a breakout final season, the basics are no concern. Instead, Surratt is working on the role he'll play off the field, in the team's locker room.
"All I got to do is step up and get better at this leadership role," Surratt said. "I just gotta step up and start saying the things that need to be said. I wasn't too boisterous last year, but this year I gotta step up into that roll and say more things now.
"All the years that I've been here, I haven't been that guy to do those things."
In past years, Surratt could rely on Clowney, Quarles, Melvin Ingram, Devin Taylor and others to provide leadership for the Gamecocks' defensive line. Now, that security blanket has been ripped away.
Surratt is the lone returning starter on the defensive line, a position of perennial strength at South Carolina. In many ways, it's up to Surratt to keep it that way.
Defensive line coach Deke Adams met with Surratt before spring practices began. He wanted to impress the importance of assuming a leadership role. There was urgency, Adams told him. It needed to start in March, so by the time August came he'd be the unquestioned voice of the defensive line.
So far, Adams has been pleased with Surratt's progress.
"I've challenged him and told him, 'Hey, we'll go as much as you go in this group,'" Adams said. "He's got a lot of playing experience, and a lot of game time, so he knows what it takes. I told him, 'You've got to step up, and you've got to get it done.' We put some pressure on him to get these younger guys going, and he's doing a great job right now."
South Carolina's defensive line isn't only young because of seniors. The Gamecocks will add seven freshman defensive linemen this fall. Darius English, Gerald Dixon and Gerald Dixon Jr. - the rest of USC's first-team defensive line this spring - have combined for five career starts.
Surratt, who started every game this fall, has paid attention to the progress of his younger teammates. He's pleased with what he's seen.
"All of them are coming out with the same attitude, knowing that they have an opportunity to come out and play for us," Surratt said. "So everybody has the same mentality that, 'I want to get out there. I want to make those plays. I want to step up. I want to play.' So I'm just glad everybody has the same mentality and wants to get better."