COLUMBIA — They were 13th in rushing defense, 12th in total defense and tied for ninth in sacks.
Hard to be any better when half the players were hurt.
South Carolina’s injuries across the defensive front began in the season-opener and never stopped. Top lineman D.J. Wonnum was lost in the second half against Coastal Carolina with an ankle injury that limited him to five games for the year, and Javon Kinlaw missed the bowl game with a hip injury that also cost him spring practice.
Will Muschamp never made excuses, simply pointing out that there wasn’t much USC could do when starters went down and players they were hoping to hold back had to play because there wasn’t anybody else. One thought that wasn’t much solace at the time kept floating — it would pay off.
That time is now.
“The most gratifying thing to me is to see big bodies that are good athletes running in and out, and a bunch of them. At the end of the day, we haven’t had that,” Muschamp said after USC's spring game. “We haven’t had as much depth and quality depth that we have now.”
The stalwarts, Wonnum and Kinlaw, are healthy. Backups like Rick Sandidge and JJ Enagbare, who were on the redshirt list last year until they were forced into action, now have that experience behind them.
It’s a three-deep depth chart of players that have been there and don’t need seasoning. Even the ones that haven’t played, such as star-studded freshman Zacch Pickens, got to participate in spring practice.
“Zacch, Rodricus Fitten, Joseph Anderson on the edge,” Muschamp said. “They’re going to be really good players for us.”
It wasn’t hard to overstate how much the lack of a steady line cost USC last season. No consistent pass-rush and the inability to stop the run had them in a 4-3 ditch before they held on to a 48-44 win at Ole Miss. They pieced together enough of a defense to hold the Rebels, who scored on eight of 10 possessions, off the scoreboard for the final four series.
They were banged up and hurting, but they had momentum. In the season’s first eight games, lack of a D-line led to the linebackers being overwhelmed, then the injuries crept into the secondary. With an unhealthy front and banged up back, the healthy middle struggled to hold everything together.
Yet it was working in Oxford, and the Gamecocks’ flourishing offense built a 31-14 lead at Florida the next week with just over a quarter to play. Everything was scripted for a strong ending to a season that definitely showed progress.
Then the Gators ran through USC’s fourth-quarter defense. Then a shattered unit that tried its hardest at Clemson simply didn’t have the horses to contain the Tigers’ relentless playmakers. Then a listless Belk Bowl shutout loss to Virginia.
It’s easy to look back and blame everything on injuries, yet after that Ole Miss win the Gamecocks were right there at the cusp of a good season. USC wins that Florida game and/or wins the bowl game, it has eight or nine wins, which is magnificent after all of the medical concerns.
They didn’t. Which hovered through a long offseason. All Muschamp could do was say he was disappointed too, but it would be better.
“Kobe Smith, Wonnum, getting him back healthy is huge for us. Brad Johnson had a really good spring, he’s playing his best football,” Muschamp said. “We feel good about the depth we have and the quality depth we have up front defensively.”
The time to prove it is approaching.