Defense was one of the many bright spots on a South Carolina football team that saw its win total more than triple from 2020 to 2021.
This year’s team is hoping to replicate that success, and even improve on it, despite changes to its roster and coaching staff during the offseason.
South Carolina’s defense ranked amongst the nation’s best in many statistical categories during the 2021 season. The Gamecocks finished 41st out of 130 FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) schools in yards allowed per game (355.8) and tied for 14th in turnovers, intercepting 15 passes and recovering nine fumbles during the campaign.
Unlike last year, the current team will be without many of its former leaders, including edge rusher Kingsley Enagbare and defensive back Jaylan Foster. Enagbare was selected in the NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers while Foster took part in rookie mini-camp with the Philadelphia Eagles and Jacksonville Jaguars.
“We lost a lot of really great players off our defense last year, but especially some great leaders on our defense last year ... so it’ll be a challenge for us to replace them on the field with the leadership off of that as well,” head coach Shane Beamer said.
As a result, South Carolina is looking for its experienced veterans to step into leadership roles ahead of next season. Defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Clayton White said the team has found one already in redshirt junior defensive back Cam Smith.
“He's like our leader right now, far as on the field, and he’s running the show when he wants to and then he’s making plays when we need him,” White said. “We’re proud of him — just continue to grow each day, and hopefully at the end, he reaches his maximum potential — what he can be.”
Smith, named a preseason first-team All-American by the Walter Camp Foundation and first-team All-SEC by Phil Steele and Athlon Sports, will lead a secondary unit that also features returning starters in redshirt senior cornerback Darius Rush and fifth-year safety R.J. Roderick.
On the defensive line, senior defensive tackle Zacch Pickens, fifth-year edge rusher Jordan Strachan and junior edge rusher Jordan Burch will have the opportunity to demonstrate leadership through their experience and the effort they show each day during practice, which has already impressed defensive ends and outside linebackers coach Sterling Lucas.
“I got a chance to see those guys in the weight room the other day, and they’re working really hard — Burch, strong, big athletic guys,” Lucas said.
Lucas’ hire in January was the latest change to a revamped defensive coaching staff, and he has already found ways to leave his mark on the program by preaching the benefits of hard work.
“Number one thing: We’re going to come in, and we’re going to lead the SEC in effort, and I know coach White is all about that,” Lucas said.
Overall, White said he is optimistic about the defense’s direction, as well as their motivation to improve on a daily basis.
“I’m just very proud of the coaching. Very proud of how the guys are coming together and, you know, we’re trying to preach right now, and guys are trying to get individually better — get that group better, get the defense better, get the team better,” White said.
Despite the wealth of veteran experience the Gamecocks have at their disposal, Pickens said the team will not reach its full potential until its younger players demonstrate their ability to become future leaders as well.
“We’ve got, like, 21 seniors and the rest of them (are) freshmen, sophomore. Like, a little bit of juniors,” Pickens said. “It’s time for that half to step up because we’re leaving, so when they step up, we’re going to be a good football team.”