Along with one-time All-American Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina loses Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton from a starting defensive line that was one of the best in America last season, a unit that helped carry the Gamecocks to an 11-2 record and a program-best No. 4 ranking in the final AP poll.
Accordingly, it is hard to pinpoint exactly who will replace Clowney next season. With so many roles and so much production to fill along the line, the player lining up at Clowney's old position may not necessarily be the "Clowney" of next year's team.
Specifically, Darius English was Clowney's primary backup last season, and he has the frame—at least height-wise (6'6'')—to theoretically assume Clowney's role in the pass rush. However, English has struggled to add and keep weight on his thin, wiry frame, which has limited his production and potential (though he's reportedly packed on some much-needed mass this offseason, according to 107.5 The Game's Heath Cline).
With so much shakeup and so few guarantees along the defensive line, no one is a safe bet to replace Clowney and become the player opposing offenses must game-plan around.
There is, however, one name flying slightly under the radar. A player who has steadily improved with each practice, week and year since the first practice of the first week of his first year on campus, who is now running with the "ones" in spring camp.
Clowney and Dixon were teammates at South Pointe High School in Rock Hill, S.C., but they couldn't have had more disparate recruiting experiences.
Clowney left with much national fanfare as the top overall recruit on the 247Sports composite, scoring a perfect grade of 100. Dixon left with one FBS scholarship offer as the No. 1,494 overall recruit on the 247Sports composite, scoring a borderline FCS grade of 79.
Thus, their divergent paths since arriving in Columbia make sense.
Clowney started as a true freshman in 2011; Dixon took a redshirt. Clowney was a unanimous All-American in 2012; Dixon played in only four games. Clowney entered 2013 on everyone's Heisman watch list; Dixon entered on the third string.
Things started to turn around last fall, however. And right from the first practice, no less. Remember that blocking sled Clowney got all the hoopla (and credit) for knocking over?
Guess who was his partner in crime:
Jadeveon Clowney and Gerald Dixon flipped a blocking sled over. SEC QBs, it’s okay to tremble. -> https://t.co/LuR63876z5— ESPN (@espn) August 5, 2013
Slowly but surely, Dixon began to curry favor among the coaches and earn playing time.
He moved up to second on the depth chart behind Sutton, making an appearance in all 13 games, including his first career start, according to his official team bio.
In fact, by the time the Capital One Bowl rolled around on Jan. 1, Dixon was already earning the workload of a platooning starter:
Gerald Dixon has played as much or more than Sutton today, but the Sr. DE gets a sack there to stop that drive.— Josh Kendall (@JoshatTheState) January 1, 2014
Now, with Sutton and Clowney vacating the edges, Dixon is ready to continue—and to expedite—his upward trajectory and become an important part of this defense. When the first depth chart of the spring was released on the last day of February, he was listed ahead of Mason Harris as a starter.
Listed as the second-team defensive tackle is Dixon's half-brother, Gerald Dixon Jr. As befits two teammates with the same father, first name and last name, it is impossible to mention the Dixons without mentioning family—especially given who their father is.
Gerald Dixon Sr. played for South Carolina in the late '80s and early '90s and was selected in the third round of the 1992 NFL draft. He enjoyed a long, respectable career at the next level, playing nine seasons for the Cleveland Browns, the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Diego Chargers.
Though it is obviously not imperative—not every great player has an NFL father; not every NFL father bears great players—Dixon's bloodline is important because it helps validate his pedigree. For a 2-star recruit who may or may not have been recruited for the sake of securing Clowney, it provides a genetic alibi for last year's unforeseen success.
Dixon and his half-brother have seen sparing reps these past few seasons, but now is their moment in the sun. "It's what we've been waiting for," said Dixon Jr. in anticipation of 2014, according to Charles Bennett of Bleacher Report. The moment has not been lost on them.
"Little G" Dixon will not be Clowney next season, but no one ever will be. He can't be. And he shouldn't try. All he can do is continue getting better, continue playing scrappy, continue making a bigger impact tomorrow than he did the day before.
If and when he does, he should be the most productive player on the new South Carolina line.