COLUMBIA — This week in the South Carolina locker room, Kelsey Griffin has a new nickname.
“We’re calling him ‘Two Sacks’ right now,” defensive end Cedrick Cooper said.
According to the stat sheet, Griffin was credited with 1½ sacks in the Gamecocks’ season-opening victory over North Carolina. But nobody will quibble over the difference. They were still the most sacks tallied by a USC defender in a single game in over a year — further evidence of just how much the Gamecocks struggled to get to the quarterback in 2014, when their 14 sacks represented the lowest total in the SEC.
In its first game, this rebuilt USC defense recorded four — again, better than in any game a season ago. And the catalyst behind that effort wasn’t one of the newcomers the Gamecocks brought in to bolster their defensive line, but Griffin, a junior tackle who played sparingly last season, and not at all in the final five games of the year.
“It feels good, to come in being a junior, to make those plays and do what I’m supposed to do on the field,” said Griffin, a native of Buford, Ga. “Because this is my time to show up and play.”
The addition of former junior college stars Marquavius Lewis and Dante Sawyer attracted much of the spotlight in the preseason, as USC retooled its defensive front. And indeed, Lewis and Sawyer — who combined for a pivotal sack on the Tar Heels’ final drive — made their presence felt. But entering Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. home opener against Kentucky, it’s the improvement of returning players that perhaps offers the most promise for sustained success.
There’s no better example of that than Griffin, an afterthought last season as USC slogged its way to the bottom of the league in total defense. Under new co-coordinator Jon Hoke, the Gamecocks (1-0) have switched to a 4-3 alignment, have emphasized technique and fundamentals, have simplified their defensive calls. In one game, at least, the difference was notable among players who struggled to make an impact a season ago.
“I think they’re all technique and fundamentally better,” said Gamecocks co-defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. “The new system, we’re not doing as much as we did in the past. That helps.”
Griffin isn’t alone. Head coach Steve Spurrier has raved about end Darius English, credited with a half-sack in the opener. Incumbent defensive tackle Gerald Dixon Jr. held off the newcomers to retain his starting spot. Taylor Stallworth has progressed to the point that he’s starting at tackle over Sawyer, despite missing all of spring practice and much of preseason camp with a pectoral tear. And Cooper has returned from a rash of injuries to start at end.
“I don’t worry about the ‘S’ word — the ‘starter’ word,” Cooper said. “As long as I play, I’m blessed.”
USC used 11 different defensive linemen against North Carolina, and Ward hinted that his rotation could increase against the Wildcats (1-0). The depth should help the Gamecocks stay fresher later in games, where they struggled the most last season. And newcomers Lewis and Sawyer are having an impact that occasionally benefits their teammates on the stat sheet, Ward added.
“It takes all four,” he said. “You look at the last sack Kelsey got, (Lewis) got a rush off the edge and made the quarterback step up, and that’s why he made the sack. All four of them working together has helped. Dante’s sack inside came from pressure outside. So I think those guys all work together, and that’s what we have to do.”
USC added 16 new defensive players over the offseason, but three of four sacks in the opener went to returnees like Griffin. “I knew my time would come if I was patient and did what my coaches asked me to do,” he said. “I knew I’d find my spot in the defense. I found my spot, and I know where I belong, and I try to do it to the best of my ability.”
And the player now called “Two Sacks” has 1½ sacks to show for it.
“Just like me, he’s been patient, he’s been hungry, and when he got his chance — again, that ‘starter’ word doesn’t really mean anything between none of us,” Cooper said. “When you get in the game, make something happen.”