New signing class, same goal for Gamecocks — fix a pass rush among worst in SEC

South Carolina head football coach Will Muschamp added seven defensive linemen on National Signing Day. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

COLUMBIA — On what was his final National Signing Day at South Carolina, former head coach Steve Spurrier inked a host of defensive linemen he hoped would turn around the worst pass rush in the SEC. On his first signing day with the Gamecocks, new head coach Will Muschamp tried to do the same.

The Gamecocks signed seven defensive linemen, more players than in any other group, taking yet another stab at rebuilding a unit that finished last in total defense in the SEC in 2015. Two of those players, end Keir Thomas and tackle Stephon Taylor, were ranked among the top 300 prospects nationally by ESPN. Several defensive newcomers could have a chance to contribute immediately, given how much help USC continues to need on that side of the ball.

“Some of these guys will play, because the defense is where I think they need the most help,” said Mike Farrell, national recruiting director at Rivals. “So I think you’re going to see probably eight or nine of these players, possibly double-figures, make an impact on this program right away.”

Thomas, an early enrollee from Miami, is USC’s highest-ranked defensive signee, ranking No. 192 on the ESPN list. But perhaps the most anticipated newcomer is Thomas, a four-star prospect out of New Orleans who chose the Gamecocks over Florida State and Texas, and is ranked the No. 226 player nationally by ESPN.

Muschamp said he’d been recruiting Taylor for three years, going back to his days at head coach at Florida. The 6-4, 285-pound defensive tackle is “a key signing for us,” Muschamp added.

“You can’t coach 6-4 and 300 pounds. He’s got good feet and change of direction. He’s got good length in his arms. I think he’s got 35- or 36-inch arms. Guys that have that length and that girth are hard to find. He’s also got good feet, good change of direction and good lower body flexibility, so he can change the direction in line and get some push in the pocket. ... I identified (him) a long time ago as someone I thought was going to be a very good football player. He’s turned out that way.”

In some ways, USC has been here before. After finishing last in the SEC in sacks and 13th in the league in total defense in 2014, Spurrier loaded up on defensive linemen in his final signing class, signing seven — among them Marquavius Lewis, an end ranked among the best prospects in junior college. Lewis finished last season with three sacks, still good enough for second on a USC team that fell to last in the league in total defense.

Another highly rated addition, junior college end Dante Sawyer, recorded two and a half sacks. Tackle Dexter Wideman, a lauded prospect out of prep school, never made it off the practice squad. End Shameik Blackshear, ranked No. 203 on ESPN’s list last season, played in two games and had his football future thrust into question after being shot in an incident outside a Columbia apartment complex.

Clearly, that group did not have the impact Spurrier and first-year defensive coordinator Jon Hoke hoped it would. Now it’s Muschamp’s turn, with a class that in addition to Thomas and Taylor includes ends Griffin Gentry, Darius Whitfield and Dennis Wonnum, and tackles Kobe Smith and Aaron Thompson

“The most exerting thing you do as a football player is pass rush,” Muschamp said. “You run out of gas pretty quickly, so especially early in the season, as hot as it is in Columbia and in the Southeast, you’ve got to have as many as you can to rotate up front. It’s a developmental position. We needed to gain more girth up front. To be able to get Kobe and Stephon and some of those guys to come on board, that was huge for us.”

Defensive line isn’t the only position where newcomers could make an immediate impact. Farrell expects Jamarcus King, a defensive back out of junior college, to develop quickly. “He’s ready to play in college,” Farrell said of King, one of two defensive backs signed along with early enrollee Chris Smith of Rock Hill.

The only linebacker in the class is T.J. Brunson of Columbia, who’ll vie for playing time in a crowded and productive unit that returns all three starters now that rising senior Skai Moore has decided against entering the NFL draft a year early. But with a new head coach in place and a new defensive scheme being installed, everyone is starting afresh.

“I believe everybody has a chance, because it’s a new staff,” Brunson said. “There are some guys there, they have a spring advantage on me. I think if I go in with the right mindset, I’ll be able to contribute somewhere on the field, regardless if that’s starting, special teams, or whatever. I can contribute to the team some way, some how.”

Muschamp reiterated what USC head baseball coach Chad Holbrook said last week: new Gamecocks quarterback Brandon McIlwain, who is on a football scholarship but playing both sports, is a football player first.

“He’ll be full-time football. He’s on a football scholarship,” Muschamp said of the dual-threat quarterback, the highest-rated member of USC’s signing class. “Chad and I have talked a lot about it. We’re on good ground with what we need to do here. When he’s not involved with football, he will be playing baseball.”

McIlwain, who enrolled early to take part in spring practice — where he’s expected to vie for the starting job — began practicing with the baseball team last week. Holbrook said Muschamp would have him whenever he needed him, although he hoped for some consideration if the freshman emerged as a starter in the outfield.

Spring football practice will run concurrent with several of USC’s early SEC baseball series, and Muschamp left no doubt where McIlwain’s priorities will be. Is the freshman expected at every spring practice? “Absolutely,” Muschamp said.