COLUMBIA — He sacked the quarterback 11 times during his final season in junior college, and envisioned another double-digit total his first year at South Carolina. But four games into his career with the Gamecocks, defensive end Marquavius Lewis is still waiting on his first.
“It’s eating me up inside to get one,” said the former four-star recruit from Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. “I’m going to keep grinding, and I’m going to get there. When I get my first one, you’ll know it.”
The addition of Lewis was central to the overhaul of a Gamecocks defense that last season finished next to last in the SEC. The soft-spoken Greenwood native was a terror in junior college, where his 11 sacks were part of a campaign that produced 63 total tackles, 20½ of them for loss. He was penciled into USC’s starting lineup even before his first practice.
And he’s remained there, a 6-3 and 264-pound presence, even as coaches have shuffled some pieces around him. But the statistics have been slow to come — Lewis though four games has recorded seven total tackles, and no sacks. Although he got a hand on Marquise Williams on a late third-and-goal in the season opener, it was Dante Sawyer who was credited with taking the North Carolina quarterback down.
“I’ve heard him say a few times that it’s been long overdue for him to get one,” said Gamecocks linebacker Skai Moore. “But I feel like it’s coming. When you watch film, he’s right there a few times. It’s just one more second, one more step. But he definitely makes a difference pass rushing, causing a lot of disturbances. So his time is going to come.”
Why has it taken so long? Although USC (2-2, 0-2 SEC) has shut out opposing offenses in the second half of three games this season, the Gamecocks have been playing all year from behind, which head coach Steve Spurrier said adversely impacts sack totals overall. USC had four in the opening-night victory over North Carolina, and has three since.
“Those defensive linemen, if we can get us a two-touchdown lead or so forth, that’s when they’ve got a chance to really have sort of big impacts,” Spurrier said. “… We need to get ahead of somebody before I think those players really have a chance to take off.”
USC has also used Lewis primarily as an inside rusher, co-defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. “I know everybody’s looking for Quay to sack a lot of quarterbacks and that type deal, and I think it’ll come,” he said. “The games we’ve played, he hasn’t had a tremendous amount of opportunities, because we’ve played him inside. So we’ll look at him maybe outside some here in the near future, and we’ll see how that works out.”
Sawyer, a junior college transfer who plays defensive tackle, leads South Carolina with two sacks entering Saturday’s noon game at Missouri (3-1, 0-1). While the Gamecocks are on pace to better the SEC-low 14 sacks they managed last season, their seven sacks this year still ranks 11th in the conference.
“I think we need to win on first and second downs so we have them in third-and-longs, so those boys can pass rush and we can get off the field,” said spur T.J. Gurley. “We’ve been in like third-and-2, so they’ve been running the ball. We need to win first and second down so those boys can really pin their ears back and rush.”
USC co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke sets numerical goals for each game in categories including sacks. He wanted five last week against UCF, and the Gamecocks managed two. What happens if they fall short? “It’s a headache, basically,” said defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth. “He’s on us 24/7 about that.”
Even so, the play of defensive ends Lewis and Boosie Whitlow — a true freshman who last week recorded his first career sack, and USC’s first safety since 2009 — remains widely praised by teammates who see an impact not necessarily reflected in statistics. Quarterbacks “feel his presence,” Stallworth said of Lewis. “He gets there pretty quick.”
Moore, USC’s leader in tackles and interceptions, agreed. “It does a lot. You see it on film, especially,” he said. “When those guys are getting back there and just causing some type of pressure on the quarterback, pushing the O-line back on the quarterback, it does a lot for the whole defense.”
But for Lewis, who in spring practice set a goal of double-digit sacks this season, the goose egg on the stat sheet remains an irritant. “I wish I could have gotten in more on some bigger plays,” he said, “but I’m going to keep working, and I’m going to get there.”
Stallworth doesn’t doubt it. “His time is coming, trust me. His time is coming,” the tackle said. “He works hard. He’s a very hard worker. He’s a great pass rusher. His time is coming. I feel like this game, he’s going to get a few.”