And it will be that way for a while — maybe even into the season.
The Gamecocks’ young defense promises to be a main topic of conversation for coach Jack Crowe and the players on campus — ahead of Sunday’s official check-in — when they meet the press at today’s Media Day.
They’ve never lacked confidence in the more cerebral build-from-the-back approach they’ve taken under coordinator Chris Boone. It’s just a matter of fitting the fresh-faced pieces together correctly. They’ll likely face the same dilemma on the other side of the ball next year.
“The assessment of defensive players is really critical at this point,” Crowe said. “We’re not sure at all what our two-deep depth chart is on defense — anywhere. We’re young and inexperienced.
“We really have to find the people who can play and we’ve depended on the period of time between practice in January before spring training and summer session to have made a difference in that side of the ball. We pretty much have a projected depth chart on offense and it hasn’t changed much, but these guys (on defense) are so young.”
It’s the biggest contributing factor to the team’s average age of 19.6 years. Fifty-eight players on the preseason roster are listed as either freshmen or sophomores; 28 of those are on defense, 13 on the two-deep, including five preseason starters. You can imagine the concern considering every team but one in the Ohio Valley Conference returns its starting quarterback.
There are a few defensive positions a little more solid than others. Crowe called defensive end DiMetrio Tyson and linebacker Rashad Smith — two of their four returning defensive starters — “solid as a rock,” but quickly added, “after that, I don’t know.”
Tyson was the least heralded among the team’s Four Forcemen up front that included seniors Rodney Garrott, Jamison Wadley and Monte Lewis; now he is the wily veteran of the group. Smith was the team’s leading tackler a year ago (77 tackles), but was overshadowed among the older players.
And while senior Keggie Harris returns with considerable experience, Crowe wouldn’t put him in that group yet. The other returning defensive starters are linebacker Nick Johnson and safety Pierre Warren, who showed a big upside as a first-year player a year ago (37 tackles, 3 INTs).
“When we changed defensive schemes we created a different demand on Keggie,” Crowe said. “He’s having to go through a transition and I don’t know where he is until we get on the field.”
Harris started out as a safety, then became a hybrid defender after new defensive coordinator Chris Boone arrived, but now will be solely a defensive back this year.
“I’ve never seen so much unknowns going into a football team as we have on defense,” Crowe said. “Except for DiMetrio, it’s an aggregation of people.
“We’ve got about two weeks to get a depth chart to get ready to play Arkansas. I don’t think our real depth chart will be established until we get through the open week before Eastern Kentucky. I see us finding out so much about ourselves by playing, because we’re so young and inexperienced on defense. I think we’re going to be in a constant state of transition we’re going to try to anchor down before we play the conference.”
Crowe said the best way to bring out what he needs to discover about this defense is to compete against a “pretty good offensive football team,” and the Gamecocks certainly have those pieces in place.
Of course, running back Washaun Ealey and a solid corps of receivers return, but Crowe is “anxious” to see the way quarterback Marques Ivory and offensive lineman Odie Rush come back after missing all of last season and the spring with fractured fibulas.
Rush, a preseason All-OVC pick, sustained his injury in the first scrimmage of camp last August. Ivory got hurt in the season opener against UT Martin, instantly lifting Coty Blanchard into the role of fulltime starter. Blanchard has been playing baseball all summer and is expected back in football camp sometime in mid-August.
Rush’s injury gave rise to the likes of Tori Mobley and Tarik Milner, both of whom will return to the line as starters. Mobley was voted into one of the only four openings on this year’s preseason All-OVC team.
“Our offensive players have credentials,” Crowe said.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.