COLUMBIA — Say goodbye to the spur. Say hello to the buck.
The newest position on South Carolina’s defense is an edge rusher known a the “buck,” which head coach Will Muschamp has employed at other stops such as Florida and Texas. In an ideal scenario, the buck plays either with a hand down or standing up, lines up at different places — and gets to the opposing quarterback.
That last item has been a particular problem at South Carolina the past two seasons in which the Gamecocks ranked last and 12th in sacks in the SEC. Changing that begins in spring practice, where USC’s new coaches are looking at a number of different players to fill the buck slot.
“That position right there is a premier pass rusher,” said defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson. “A guy that can stand up, a guy that can put his hand in the ground. We’re still trying to find who exactly that guy is. We have some guys we’re really looking at that can be that dominant player.”
Past bucks under Muschamp include Quinton Groves, who had 19 sacks in three seasons at Auburn; Dante Fowler Jr., who totaled 8.5 sacks in his final season at Florida; and Sergio Kindle, who finished with 16 sacks over his final two campaigns at Texas.
“We’ve had some guys who were really good,” Robinson said. “So we’ll continue to evaluate our guys, and we’ll find us someone who can get to the quarterback.”
Players whom USC’s coaches have tried at the buck position so far include defensive ends Boosie Whitlow, Keir Thomas and Darius English, the latter of whom is out for the remainder of spring with a quadriceps strain. Thomas, a true freshman, “may be our most improved guy,” Muschamp said.
There’s also Bryson Allen-Williams, a 230-pound linebacker who played defensive end as a freshman and possesses the speed and mobility coaches want at that spot. “That’s him. He’s a good edge rusher,” defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth said of the rising junior. “That’s what we need. Him coming down from linebacker to buck is a good move for the defense.”
In Muschamp’s defense, there is no longer a “spur” position, that hybrid extra linebacker/nickelback used under former head coach Steve Spurrier. Particularly with so many concerns in the secondary, the onus defensively appears likely to fall on a pass rush that’s being retooled for the second time in as many seasons.
“We really haven’t had a good pass rush since some big guys left. (Jadeveon) Clowney, those guys,” Allen-Williams said. “It’s all coming together now. We have some good guys up front who are going to help us pass rush again, get back to that dominating level up front.”
Muschamp wants eight to 10 players he can rotate along the defensive line, particularly against spread offenses. “Once a big guy runs out of gas, he’s done,” he said. “The most exerting thing you do in football is pass rushing. If you play a team that’s throwing it a lot and you’re rushing the passer a lot, then you don’t have a pass rush. ... We have a good combination of guys inside that will give us some quality depth.”
And the centerpiece of that defensive line will be the buck, a position tailor-made for a big, agile pass-rusher like Clowney who is now manning an outside linebacker spot in the NFL. There is no Clowney on the USC roster for 2016. In spring practice, coaches are searching for the next-best thing.
“Pass rush can make up for everything,” Robinson said. “We’ve got to continue to do that, we’ve got to find rushers. We’re doing a good job of identifying that, and we’ve got to continue on that track.”
Quarterback Lorenzo Nunez, out since March 19 with a hyperextended left knee, won’t participate in Saturday’s noon spring game, Muschamp said after practice. The rising sophomore was walking with a slight limp Thursday.
“He’s come out and thrown a good bit in some pre-practice stuff, but he has not been cleared to run around,” Muschamp said. “He’s moving around pretty good on it, he’s throwing the ball well. ... The quarterbacks won’t be live anyway Saturday, but regardless, we’re not going to put him out there.”
Perry Orth will also miss the spring game with a broken collarbone. Freshman Brandon McIlwain, who began taking snaps with the No. 1 unit late in spring, will be available along with rising junior Connor Mitch and rising sophomore Michael Scarnecchia.