COLUMBIA -- The notion seems improbable, at best -- that a team could lose a consensus All-America defensive end and still have one of college football's most formidable pass rushes.
But if 2011 was any indication, that's exactly the position South Carolina could find itself in for 2012. While the Gamecocks prepare for life without All-American Melvin Ingram, they got some good news Monday when Devin Taylor announced he would return for his senior season.
Taylor started at the defensive end spot opposite Ingram last season and ranked third on the team with six sacks, behind Ingram's 10 and true freshman Jadeveon Clowney's eight. Clowney was listed as Ingram's backup, but played extensively and will combine with Taylor
to form a potentially game-changing defensive end duo in 2012.
USC's defense last season set a lofty standard for both next season's players and Lorenzo Ward, who was promoted from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator before USC beat Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl, to replace Ellis Johnson, now the head coach at Southern Mississippi. Ward's debut went well, as USC held Nebraska to 253 yards in a 30-13 win.
Heading into Monday night's Bowl Championship Series title game between Alabama and LSU, South Carolina ranked behind only those two teams in yards allowed per game with 267.7. The Gamecocks were No. 10 nationally in points allowed, with 18.4.
Coming off a school-record 11-2 season in which the defense was an integral part of USC's success, Taylor has high hopes for 2012.
"I still have some things I'd like to accomplish at Carolina before I go on to the next level," he said in a school-issued press release.
His decision to return to school was not a surprise. He was not as highly rated as either of the USC juniors who decided last week to turn pro -- cornerback Stephon Gilmore and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Taylor had said he was not projected to get picked in the NFL draft's first three rounds by the league's committee that advises underclassmen on where they might be selected.
Losing Ingram poses a challenge for 2012, of course, but it is far from a disastrous development now that Taylor is coming back. The defensive line also must replace tackle Travian Robertson, but junior Aldrick Fordham and true freshman Kelcy Quarles shared time at the other tackle spot last season, so both are game-tested.
The secondary loses Gilmore and the starting combination at the other corner spot, C.C. Whitlock and Marty Markett. The top returning corners are Victor Hampton and Akeem Auguste. Hampton played in 10 games as a redshirt freshman backup to Gilmore last season and had an interception. Auguste will return for his fifth-year senior season in 2012 after being shut down last year because of a foot injury.
Linebacker Rodney Paulk is gone, but he shared his starting job with junior Shaq Wilson in 2011. Perhaps the toughest defensive player to replace will be spur linebacker Antonio Allen, who ranked first on the team in tackles and third in tackles for loss last season. Allen was a mainstay at spur, having started 31 of the 40 games he played over the past three seasons.
Allen's backup in 2011 was junior Damario Jeffery, who struggled while replacing Allen in the loss at Arkansas, when Allen had a sprained neck.
The Gamecocks, whose 2011 season ended just a week ago Monday, will officially reconvene and begin figuring out the future exactly two months from Thursday -- when spring practices are scheduled to start.
Jadeveon Clowney was named to the 11th annual Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-America team.
Clowney, a 6-6, 254-pound freshman from Rock Hill, finished his first season with 36 tackles, including a dozen tackles for loss and eight sacks. He was also credited with five forced fumbles and six quarterback hurries.