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Expectations vs. reality: What South Carolina’s defense got from each position in 2023

South Carolina’s football team entered 2023 in a bit of an uncertain state.

The Gamecocks had seen some wild highs and lows the season prior. The offense lost four of its top five playmakers. The defense lost seven key starting-quality rotation players.

In short, it was a team that was going to need a few things to break right to get to .500 and another bowl — and more than a few things to break right to chase a big season.

Instead, they caught a range of bad outcomes, missed a few chances and finished without a bowl trip for the first time in Shane Beamer’s tenure.

Some of those things were external, like Missouri going from a usually 6-6 level team to 10-2 and well ahead of the Gamecocks. But most of these things happened to the roster, the kinds of things where talent needs to deliver and step up.

What South Carolina expected from its defense and special teams in 2023 — and what it got:

Defensive tackles

What was expected/hoped for: With Zacch Pickens moving on to the NFL and MJ Webb also leaving, the team went in with a sturdy pair in Alex Huntley and Tonka Hemingway. With them as a base, the question was, could players like T.J. Sanders and others fill out the group for defensive coordinator Clayton White?

What happened: Huntley was solid throughout, while Hemingway struggled much of the year to replicate how disruptive he was through all of 2022. (By the end, some of the numbers were about there.) Sanders came on well and had some truly high-end moments. Beyond them, no one stepped up as high-impact guys. Leaning into some more 3-down linemen looks allowed bigger guys in Nick Barrett and Jamaal Whyce to contribute a little more at nose tackle.

Defensive ends

What was expected/hoped for: South Carolina just needed folks to step up after both of last year’s starters transferred out from an already-thin room. The staff added a pair of well-traveled transfers, one several weeks into August camp.

What happened: This group struggled to generate consistent impact. Jordan Strachan was the best they had with four sacks. Tyreek Johnson was out there a lot and had a few moments. Bryan Thomas Jr. provided a bit of twitch, but he’s quite small. Syracuse transfer Jatius Geer was at least a rotation guy after missing the season’s start with injury, and UAB transfer Drew Tuazama never got into the mix. All told, the group struggled with consistent upside plays and with the smaller stuff. Life did get a bit easier when the defense started shifting toward the 3-3, which allowed for some redefining of roles.

Linebackers

What was expected/hoped for: After two serviceable starters departed, the team hoped they could craft a rotation between two four-star underclassmen (Stone Blanton, Pup Howard), one strong veteran (Mo Kaba) and one returning reserve (Debo Williams).

What happened: Kaba suffered a knee injury at the start of the season. Williams ended up being the best guy on the roster, although he was at times limited in space and reliant on shooting gaps. Blanton had some rough moments early but rounded into being mostly solid. Howard looked lost for much of the year, but started to settle in late. Bam-Martin Scott emerged as the season when on, especially when the team switched to more 3-3 looks and let him work in space. In general, the group struggled early and settled in the final four games.

Safeties

What was expected/hoped for: DQ Smith and Nick Emmanwori had solid freshman seasons in 2022, so it seemed like they’d step up as anchors. Four-star redshirt freshman Keenan Nelson Jr. looked like he had rotation potential. Veteran David Spaulding was coming back from an injury, while Peyton Williams had flashed.

What happened: Both Smith and Emmanwori had long stretches of struggle through the season, especially trying to match slot receivers in coverage. Freshman Jalon Kilgore emerged and was a key anchor of the secondary. Nelson got the opening day start, but he had issues in coverage and wasn’t in the rotation much when everyone was healthy. Spaulding never seemed quite right and barely played, while something kept Williams off the field most of the year. Like the linebackers, the top guys tightened up in the last few games, but the team was too far behind the eight ball.

Corners

What was expected/hoped for: Marcellas Dial returned as a starter, and O’Donnell Fortune was an athletic guy who needed to take a step in consistency to be a starter. Depth behind them was simply a question with a lot of youth.

What happened: Dial and Fortune weren’t rock stars, but they were, on balance, OK at worst. There were some tackling breakdowns, but considering the stakes of the position, they held up fine. Freshman Judge Collier emerged as the top backup, with Emory Floyd behind him. They both had some young player moments and got in here or there.

Special teams

What was expected/hoped for: With a kicker and punter retiring, there were hopes this unit could carry over the stellar play as one of the best groups in the country.

What happened: This group had a bit of a backslide. Coverage was a little more spotty. Punter Kai Kroeger had some issues with consistency, but kicker Mitch Jeter was still strong. They hit fewer trick plays (still had a few), but there wasn’t a situation where specials directly cost them a game.