South Carolina-Alabama: Gamecocks' State of Defense Heading into Tuscaloosa
After a stifling performance in the opener against N.C. State, the defense looked like another one of Carolina's stingy defensive units. With standout players at every level of the defense, it appeared as though Carolina's unit could even make the Gamecocks contenders in the SEC East all by itself.
Considering the puny offensive output of a single touchdown in the season opener by the offense, it looked like another nail-biting year of leaning on Ellis Johnson and company.
Then the injury bug hit the Carolina defense, and it hit hard.
The Gamecocks endured season-ending knee injuries to both their starting middle linebacker Rodney Paulk and starting defensive tackle Travian Robertson—two injuries that hit Carolina right in what might as well have been their strained groin.
Soon afterward, another star on the Gamecocks defensive line, Nathan Pepper, went down with an ankle injury. The fifth-year senior from Greenville, S.C. has spent most of his time battling injury since signing on in Spurrier's inaugural recruiting class.
After tearing his ACL on a fumble return for a touchdown a couple years back, Pep's ankle was not supposed to be the lingering injury it has become six weeks into the season.
While Pepper has returned to the interior defensive line for Carolina and says he's OK, he will have to play at full speed and show no signs of favoring his bum ankle in Alabama Saturday.
On top of all of this, Carolina's most experienced cornerback, sophomore Akeem Auguste, is serving the last game of his suspension for undisclosed team violations heading into Tuscaloosa to quite literally add insult to injury.
Since these four major developments have transpired on the defensive side of the ball for Carolina, a lot of shuffling has taken place.
First-year players Tony Straughter and Josh Dickerson, teammates on their Georgia Military JUCO team, have split time with 210-pound sophomore Shaq Wilson filling in at linebacker for the injured Paulk.
This combination of (under)size and youth has reared its ugly head once or twice in the linebacking corps, especially on power running plays.
While Nathan Pepper and standout junior Ladi Ajiboye are both healthy and ready to go for the Alabama game Saturday, there's no denying that the loss of Travian Robertson really hurt the depth on the interior D-line.
Since Pepper and Robertson have been out, names have shuffled in and out of this middle line. The lack of depth became such an issue in the passing weeks that the coaches were debating which offensive linemen they should transfer over to the D-line.
However, sophomore Melvin Ingram was able to seize the opportunity and looks as though he could be a capable backup looking forward.
Even with all of this shuffling in the front seven, the most disconcerting level of the defense right now for Carolina may be the secondary.
While high school all-everything star Stephon Gilmore has shown in the first six weeks that he's a special player, Akeem Auguste's suspension made a young corner unit even younger.
Shortly after the suspension, it became obvious that true freshman D.J. Swearinger and sparingly-used junior Addison Williams were to get the bulk of the playing time. The corner position was starting to seem more and more like a liability looking forward in '09.
Enter C.C. Whitlock.
A talented sophomore who couldn't get away from trouble in his first couple years at Carolina, Whitlock had seen his playing time and welcome slowly dissipate in Columbia.
However, Whitlock came out with a statement game in the absence of Auguste, earning the game ball and totaling eight tackles against Kentucky last week. The statement? I'm a damn good talent, and I will not be buried on this depth chart.
So what's to make of all this?
I think the defense will play well against a powerful offense on Saturday in Tuscaloosa. While they will put up a fight against an equally physical opponent, they may be on the field too much against 'Bama.
I think the secondary will be fine with the help of Whitlock.
Stephon Gilmore has shown he is a worthy true freshman starter in the SEC at corner. If the Rock Hill, S.C. native is able to make a big play in this one at a crucial point in the game, the Carolina fanbase just might go crazy over this kid.
Hopefully, the two starters will be able to stay on the field for most of the game so Swearinger can be played sparingly.
I think the defensive line could be a deciding factor in this one for the Gamecocks.
For just the second time this season, all preseason starters will start on the offensive line (Matthews, Pepper, Ajiboye, Geathers). If all of them are ready to go, they could end up providing the best dog fight that the big 'Bama offensive line has seen all season.
However, the D-line will need some help from their offense if they're going to be able to feature their potent pass rush late in the game.
However, where there is hope in the D-line, there is despair in the linebacking corps.
The aforementioned big offensive blockers of Alabama will be able to key on Carolina's hero, Eric Norwood, Saturday. They'll be doubling Norwood and Matthews for much of the game while being able to dispatch the other undersized backers on the field with one man on just about every down.
Unless the (extremely) undersized linebackers of Carolina are able to use their speed and lateral movement to get away from the blocking schemes of 'Bama, it could be a long day for the Gamecock defense.
Ironically, the defense will be in the best shape if the Carolina offense can keep the game close. This would force more passing downs, which would work in the favor of the USC pass rush and their cover-oriented crop of linebackers.
This should be an interesting one to watch on the defensive side of the ball for Carolina. While there are many questions facing the defense, it is a unit that has a solid foundation of veteran leaders.
If the proven playmakers of this defense such as Norwood, Matthews, Pepper, and safety Darian Stewart are able to make plays, it may not matter what the linebackers weigh or who is lining up in the middle of the D-line.
The only thing that will matter to Ellis Johnson and company is the W.
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