COLUMBIA — He arrived from junior college with monstrous numbers, as the potential savior of South Carolina’s pass rush, and in his first spring practice forecast double-digit sacks. The SEC had other ideas.
Indeed, Marquavius Lewis’ first season with the Gamecocks was an instructional course on the great the leap from junior college to major-college football.
The can’t-miss addition to South Carolina’s 2015 squad, penciled in as a starter from the moment he arrived on campus, Lewis endured noticeable growing pains as he gripped with bigger, faster opponents who more readily kept the USC defensive end in check.
He didn’t get to double-digit sacks; he didn’t get close. He managed three, his first not coming until six games into the season. “Eating me up inside,” the soft-spoken pass-rusher said of the wait.
It wasn’t quite the debut USC fans expected from the Greenwood native, but in retrospect there was no way for him to reach his lofty personal goals on a defensive line improved only marginally from the miserable year before.
Looking back, it seems laughable that the arrival of one four-star prospect would completely reverse the fortunes of the league’s worst pass rush, but those were the expectations Lewis faced at USC. Before he ever played a game, he was nominated for the All-SEC preseason team.
He was double-teamed, he had opponents run away from him, and he didn’t have enough help to make up for it.
Quietly, though, as is Lewis’ nature, he started every game, the only Gamecocks returner to have done that in 2015. His three sacks, meager by his personal standards, were good enough for second-best on the team behind the 4.5 of Darius English, who often played the other end and benefitted from all the attention Lewis received. And Lewis got better as the season went on, his per-game tackle numbers gradually improving and becoming more consistent after a rough start.
Now, he’s again projected as a starter at defensive end, this time under a defensive-minded head coach who likes what he’s seen out of the 6-4, 254-pound former junior college star. “Marquavius Lewis has had a great offseason,” head coach Will Muschamp said. “I’m really pleased with his work ethic and how he’s gone about his business.”
As he was last season, Lewis appears one of the few fixtures on a defensive line Muschamp and associate head coach Lance Thompson continued to tweak as spring came to an end. English, after realizing some of his potential last season, remains behind redshirt freshman Daniel Fennell at the other end. Kelsey Griffin, who showed flashes in an inconsistent 2015, is at one tackle. The mainstays are Lewis and tackle Taylor Stallworth, who was limited at the end of last season after suffering a chest injury.
With the secondary looking shaky in the spring and the linebacker corps eroded by the loss of leading tackler Skai Moore, USC will need that defensive line — indeed, the one with 34 sacks over the last two seasons — to make a leap forward. At the center of it will be Lewis, who after finding his footing in the SEC last year, will be counted upon to take the next step.