COLUMBIA — The helplessness was the worst part.
It’s not like South Carolina wanted to keep its defense on the field so long. It’s not like coordinator Travaris Robinson and head coach Will Muschamp enjoyed seeing opponents run up the middle, time after gut-wrenching time.
The Gamecocks did what they had to do when injuries sapped their defensive line in 2018, and it affected their linebackers. Nobody wants to hear excuses, but it wasn’t easy to keep in top condition when they were charged with making every play on every down.
“Just inconsistent fits, mental focus, and that’s on me,” special teams coordinator and linebackers coach Coleman Hutzler said. “We’ve simplified some things schematically and narrowed down some things. But also, when you’re playing 800, 900 snaps, you wear down, man.”
Linebackers T.J. Brunson and Sherrod Greene started every game last season, and they finished 1-2, respectively, on the team’s tackles chart. By those numbers, they played great.
By their standards, they played awful. Trying to draw energy and strength out of a depleted body and not producing despite knowing what was coming was as draining as watching the film the day after the game.
“We all know we’re better than what we put out. That’s the game — adversity and how you bounce back from that,” Brunson said. “I had a lot of things going through my head and probably shouldn’t have, but I’m just looking forward to settling into the position this year.”
The problems began right away, when top pass-rusher D.J. Wonnum was lost for five games. The Gamecocks had to replace him and tweak the defense, so they moved linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams into more of a defensive line role and Daniel Fennell into Allen-Williams’ old spot.
Then they moved Allen-Williams back and went with a three-man defensive front. Then they reversed it and put Fennell back in. Then Wonnum returned and they went back to a two-man linebacking crew before Wonnum was hurt again.
The Gamecocks’ best defensive line talent was either out or at best limited. With nobody up front to stop the enemy, the linebackers were often asked to; and while part of the job description is to bring down a 200-pound bowling ball barreling into your facemask, Brunson, Greene and their teammates couldn’t do it consistently enough.
Athlon Sports recently released its college football preview magazine and judged each SEC team by anonymous quotes from the league’s other coaches. A couple pointed out the Gamecocks’ deficiencies in the second level.
“But they weren’t that tough against the run at all — you could sort of impose your will on them,” said one. “They didn’t tackle all that well, the linebackers were out of position a lot,” said another.
Brunson, Greene, Rosendo Louis nor Ernest Jones had heard that, but they understand why it was said.
“As a freshman, yeah, it was a struggle,” Louis said. “The game speed changed, and I’m not the biggest person on the field anymore, so I had to use technique and alignments to get myself together.”
Like the defensive line, players getting on the field before they were ready last year should pay off this year. The depth is there, and the Gamecocks won’t be hamstrung by an early injury.
“As you get over 60 (snaps), you’re starting to wonder. You’re starting to wear down probably a little bit,” Hutzler said. “But we’re not going to have to do that anymore. Just to be able to give a guy a series, so T-Rob doesn’t have to second-guess what he’s calling because of who’s in the game. To be able to just mix and match and play ball. ‘Ah, man, so-and-so’s on the field, I got to call certain things?’ Nah, we ain’t doing that.”
All the linebackers have to do is reward that trust.