On Signing Day, Gamecocks finally find their pass rush

Nature Coast's Christian Pellage, with his parents Bonnie and Rick by his side, signs with South Carolina on Wednesday in the school's gymnasium in Brooksville, Fla. Pellage is a 6-6, 305-pound offensive lineman. (AP Photo/The Tampa Bay Times, Brendan Fitterer)

The relentless pass rush South Carolina lacked for so much of last season has finally arrived — on paper, at least.

The cornerstone of the Gamecocks’ 2015 National Signing Day class is comprised of five defensive ends, four of whom inked their letters of intent with USC on Wednesday. Shameik Blackshear, Dante Sawyer, Devante Covington and Quandeski Whitlow join January enrollee Marquavius Lewis in forming a unit likely to reshape a defensive line that struggled to pressure the quarterback during South Carolina’s 7-6 campaign of a season ago.

“We should be a different team,” head coach Steve Spurrier said. “Hopefully we can put a defense out there that our fans will really be proud of, and really get fired up about.”

USC finished 13th in the SEC last season in total defense, and a series of fourth-quarter collapses left the Gamecocks clinging to a winning record. That became an emphasis in recruiting for USC, which added 16 new defensive players in the mid-year period and Signing Day combined. Lewis, one of the top defensive ends in junior college, is now joined by a pair of four-star recruits in Blackshear and Sawyer.

Blackshear, from Bluffton, was rated the fifth-best player in the state by Rivals. Sawyer signed with USC last year but ended up at East Mississippi Community College, where he recorded 6.5 sacks. Covington and Whitlow are both rated as three-star recruits.

“Everybody knows we had trouble rushing the passer last year,” Spurrier said. “... Obviously we needed some help defensively, and I think we’ve done that.”

South Carolina weathered a spate of de-commitments in the weeks leading up to Signing Day, among them four-star defensive end Arden Key, who twice committed to the Gamecocks only to sign with LSU. Although questions lingered over the state of the Gamecocks staff and how much longer Spurrier will continue to coach, recruiting director Steve Spurrier Jr. called the defections a function of how many players USC was recruiting to begin with.

“Anytime you start with a huge number, there’s the possibility of that,” he said.

Added Spurrier: “We started with a few more, lost a few along the way, as a lot of schools do. These kids change their minds all the time now. A lot of the these kids committed when we were No. 4 in the nation (after the 2013 season). We didn’t end up No. 4 in the nation.”

USC’s class was rated 19th by Rivals and 21st by ESPN. “I think anytime you don’t have the success on the field a lot of people thought you were going to have, it can somewhat affect your momentum in recruiting. I think that happened a little bit for South Carolina this year,” said Tom Luginbill, ESPN’s recruiting director.

“I’ve really been surprised — and I like what they’re doing, because I think it’s needed — but they’ve really gone heavy into the junior college ranks, and that’s not generally a stable of Steve Spurrier-coached teams. And I think it’s a reflection of how concerned they were of the development rate of some of their young players, and the fact that they needed some older, more experienced guys in there to make an immediate impact.”

USC’s class includes six junior college players and two transfers, among them offensive lineman Cory Helms of Wake Forest, who will miss the 2015 season unless the NCAA grants him a waiver. The highest-rated player in the class according to ESPN is 6-6, 305-pound offensive lineman Christian Pellage, while offensive lineman Zack Bailey of Summerville is rated third.

South Carolina also signed four receivers to help fill the void left by the glut of wideouts which left after last season. The lone quarterback is dual-threat Lorenzo Nunez, who ran for 1,193 yards and passed for 803 as a high school senior, but might not figure into USC’s plans for this coming season given that Connor Mitch, Perry Orth and Michael Scarnecchia will compete for the position in the spring.

“Lorenzo Nunez will probably come over and watch a bunch of practices on the weekends,” Spurrier said. “But the three guys who are here now, they’ll battle it out to see which one is the best of them. And then probably preseason next year, we’ll keep battling it out and see what we’ve got for the first game.”