COLUMBIA - Over the past several months, the chip on the collective shoulders of South Carolina's defensive line has only gotten bigger.
They've heard the doubts. Fair or not, they're seen as a potential weak spot. That's what happens when the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft leaves.
Defensive tackle J.T. Surratt, the senior leader this fall, doesn't want Jadeveon Clowney's absence to be used as an excuse. There still are talented players along the Gamecocks' defensive line, ready for their chance to step up, Surratt said.
"We're ready to prove that just because he's gone doesn't mean we're going to be bad," Surratt said at SEC Media Days last week. "We're still trying to show everybody that we're going to be good, if not better. Just because one person leaves doesn't mean our whole line falls off. We're going to be ready to show everybody that we're great players too. We're going to make a name for ourselves this year."
Of course, it was more than one person leaving South Carolina's defensive line. The departures of Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton also will be felt. Together, Clowney, Quarles and Sutton combined for 111 tackles, 33.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks last season. They ranked first, second and third on the team in tackles for loss.
With that much pressure up front, South Carolina caused headaches for opposing offensive lines. The Gamecocks were near the top of the SEC in tackles for loss last season. They lost 44 tackles for loss from their roster this offseason, more than half of their 87 total in 2013.
Comparatively, Clemson will return 98.5 tackles for loss to its roster.
Surratt knows how important it is for South Carolina's defensive line to maintain constant pressure. With fresh faces playing new roles, the veteran has shared lessons learned from Clowney and Quarles with his younger teammates.
"I'm going on my fifth year," Surratt said. "Any time I can show them or share with them something I've learned from being here, I'll do it no problem. Everybody has a chance to show this year what they can do and compete for a spot on the field."
South Carolina's success along the defensive line will start with Surratt. He's the engine. Coach Steve Spurrier called him a likely senior captain, easily the most experienced player at his position.
"He should have a big season," Spurrier said.
A "big season" means sacks and tackles for loss and postseason awards, but also making his teammates better. Like Quarles last season, Surratt will be expected to have a constant presence inside.
"We've got to have pass rushers," Surratt said. "The guys we've got this year coming back, we all have the mentality that we're going to show everybody that our pass rushing game - or us as a whole - we can still get those sacks. We can still get back to the quarterback. I believe a lot of those guys are going to show this year that they can make those necessary plays that need to be made.
"All we can do this year is get better every day. We'll be ready Aug. 28."