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South Carolina moves on without injured defensive star D.J. Wonnum

  • Updated

South Carolina's D.J. Wonnum (8) missed the Georgia game after injuring his ankle against Coastal Carolina in the season opener. He is expected to be out for at least a month. Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina

COLUMBIA — A second look revealed a worse prognosis, and just like that, South Carolina was down one of its top defensive players.

D.J. Wonnum could return this season — he should return if Will Muschamp’s initial comment of “about a month” stands — but he won’t be back for a while. Wonnum only had two tackles in the season-opener, but one was for loss. The All-SEC candidate had 13 tackles for loss last year, including six sacks.

Muschamp, as expected, didn’t waste a second explaining how worse off the Gamecocks are without their starting Buck, a man who creates so much diversion and pressure for the opposing quarterback.

“Next man up,” he said. “We’re not into making excuses.”

And at least in terms of scheme and personnel, USC is equipped to handle the absence.

“It’s not really a loss,” linebacker Sherrod Greene said. “It’s somebody that we want, but at the same time we still have people that back up for him that will do a pretty good job.”

Buck is a roving position, able to play with a hand in the dirt or as a standup pass-rusher, and having linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams usually lining up near the Buck gives that same look. Allen-Williams can blitz if told or drop into coverage, and the Buck on the line can hold his position or get after the quarterback.

Allen-Williams is still there, and is likely to be lining up near Daniel Fennell, who replaced Wonnum against Georgia. Fennell had two tackles against the Bulldogs, with one sack.

“It will increase Bryson's percentage of playing the Buck position,” Muschamp said. “And then you've got Aaron (Sterling) and Shameik (Blackshear) playing the end position. Keir Thomas can go outside and play the end. Danny Fennell can play the end and it increases Danny's and Brad (Johnson)'s reps at the Buck.”

The Gamecocks started the Georgia game in a three-man defensive front and switched in and out of it throughout. Much of the look depends on whether or not USC wants to play nickel defense. With freshman Jaycee Horn earning a starting spot at nickel back, USC wants to keep him on the field as much as possible.

Linebackers can move up to bolster the line in a three-man and Allen-Williams can rove near the line, but still play as a stand-up athlete. If the Gamecocks need a true end other than Sterling, Johnson can come in, or USC can switch starting tackle Keir Thomas to the outside spot and have his backup (Blackshear) take his place.

USC needed to reconstruct its defense after Georgia gashed it, but with the way the Bulldogs attack a team side-to-side, it was difficult to get a mix of speed and tackling ability on the field at the same time. Muschamp blamed communication for several of the busts, which sometimes led to defensive linemen chasing wide receivers.

Nobody wanted to see Wonnum get hurt, but having a lot of depth has helped USC with its options to replace him.

“Obviously Georgia attacked us on the edges. That was something you saw on the first series and realized what was going to happen, so we've got to do a better job of holding the point on the edges,” Muschamp said. “We've looked at some different lineups that we can possibly look at as far as setting better edges of our defense and finding better ways to do that.”

The Gamecocks won’t play anybody as stocked with talent as Georgia for a while. They plan to be prepared for that next time.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.

From Rock Hill, S.C., David Cloninger covers Gamecock sports. He will not rest until he owns every great film and song ever recorded. Want the inside scoop on Gamecock athletics? Subscribe to Gamecocks Now.