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Gamecocks defensive tackle Zacch Pickens' strategy: Stop trying 'not to mess up'

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Zacch Pickens

Zacch Pickens struggled last season as he made the transition to defensive tackle at South Carolina after starring as a defensive end in high school. Provided/South Carolina Athletics

COLUMBIA — Lost in the shuffle last season was that he changed positions.

Zacch Pickens was one of the highest-rated recruits in South Carolina history when he enrolled last year. The freshman ended the season with no starts in 12 games, 16 tackles and one quarterback hurry.

That’s all? From a guy rated one of the best prospects in the nation? A player who was so monstrously gifted at T.L. Hanna High that he played both ways, collecting six sacks among 15 tackles for loss, rushing 104 times for 889 yards and returning an interception 24 yards for a score in the Class AAAAA state championship game?

His first season as a Gamecock wasn’t bad. Far from it, actually. Pickens made the freshman All-SEC team and received honorable mention from one freshman All-American team.

It’s just that many expected Jadeveon Clowney Part II to show up and as a freshman, Pickens was the guy who “flashed.” He would have moments where everyone saw exactly why he earned those lofty rankings but never a consistent performance.

"I felt like I did ... all right,” Pickens carefully said. “There were some areas I could improve in.”

He didn’t point it out until he was asked. The Clowney comparisons came because both played the same position in high school, the standup defensive end who terrorized backfields and had QBs scheduling therapy sessions.

Pickens moved inside in college, taking on the noble but often overlooked spot of defensive tackle. Throw in that he was playing behind Kobe Smith, who played 48 career games, and Javon Kinlaw, the 14th overall pick in the last NFL Draft, and the lack of numbers is elementary

He probably won’t get many sacks. He probably won’t be able to find a fumble in the middle of all that laundry at the bottom of the line of scrimmage.

What he will do is be more comfortable in his spot and with what he’s being asked to do. Becoming a starter may be difficult as senior Jabari Ellis is having a terrific preseason camp and Keir Thomas, who wasn’t supposed to be here this year but a nasty ankle injury last year provided an unexpected redshirt, are the presumed starters. 

Waiting isn't a problem. The Gamecocks constantly rotate linemen as coach Will Muschamp knows that once a big man is gassed, he’s done for the day. Pickens will play.

Now to turn the flashes of brilliance — like chasing a Texas A&M tight end 31 yards downfield for a tackle last year — into sustained light.

“I’m more comfortable with it now because I’m used to it. I had a year of it so I’m really comfortable with it,” Pickens said. “At first, I was like, ‘I don’t know about that D-tackle,’ because you’re taking on 300 pounds every time. I’m used to it now.”

Muschamp and defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson echo the thought that the closer a player is to the ball on any play, the harder it is to stand out. They’ve also used Kinlaw, a raw but gifted prospect when he enrolled and a multi-millionaire now, as a teaching tool.

“We’ve been showing a lot of clips of Javon playing. You come in, you got good players in front of you, you know what it’s supposed to look like,” Robinson said. “Lot of times as a young player, you don’t know what it looks like. You don’t know what good is.”

Pickens admitted the struggle of knowing what he was supposed to do last season.

“Learning all the plays and not trying to mess up. That’s where I got messed up, trying not to mess up and trying to be right and not look crazy out there on the field,” he said. “It’s improved a lot. I’m doing everything faster, I know the plays faster. When I was a freshman, it was a struggle getting the plays.”

As a sophomore there’s no more learning curve. That’s turned to power, knowledge and a path to domination.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.

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