Clayton White said it before the season. He’s still saying it two weeks into the season.
Edge rusher Aaron Sterling can sometimes go unnoticed, and South Carolina’s defensive coordinator thinks he shouldn’t.
White may have a point. When there’s chatter around South Carolina’s talented defensive front, Sterling’s teammates Kingsley “JJ” Enagbare and Jordan Burch tend to take the spotlight.
But don’t overlook Sterling. A fifth-year Gamecock, he’s been around South Carolina since 2017, playing in 39 games and making 20 career starts. He’s been a starter at the edge position along with Enagbare in the Gamecocks’ first two games of 2021, totaling six tackles and 1.5 sacks.
“I’m not saying he’s a bully,” White said in a news conference Wednesday. “But he’s got some bully mannerisms sometimes. I think that’s what defenses need. I’m glad he’s on my team.”
The 6-foot-2, 250-pound Atlanta product had to battle back from a knee injury that kept him off the field for much of the 2020 season. His ability to come up from the setback, as well as his leadership qualities as a veteran, impressed White throughout fall camp.
He showed he’s in good form with his stat line through USC’s first two games, but White knew Sterling had the will to make it when he was coaching him before the season started.
“We kind of call him the heart and soul of the front,” White told reporters in a preseason press conference on Aug. 19. “After going through a grinding camp, I think he’s taken every single rep.”
White has remained impressed with Sterling’s attitude and how he takes his will and imposes it against opponents. Head coach Shane Beamer awarded Sterling with one of the program’s three defensive player of the week honors after the East Carolina win, where Sterling came down with an 11-yard sack of Pirates quarterback Holton Ahlers.
“It’s just his leadership and how he carries himself like a grown man,” White said. “No matter what you ask him to do. He’s not the biggest, but he find a way to get things done.”
That kind of will is what makes Sterling a key leader in the Gamecocks’ defensive front, which is set for its toughest challenge of the season against No. 2 Georgia in Athens on Saturday (7 p.m., ESPN).
The Bulldogs, though grappling with quarterback questions, still put up 539 yards and seven touchdowns against UAB last week. White said the whole South Carolina defense, front to back, is up for the challenge.
“I told the guys, all of our guys upfront, everyone on this football team should be a little bit more excited because it’s SEC football,” White said. “Not just the fact that it’s UGA.”
When White talked about Sterling, his leadership and his prowess, he also mentioned that Sterling is a person he’d call if he were ever in a situation where he needed someone to have his back. Asked later who he’d take with him if he felt unsafe in a dark alley, White called out a group of three: Sterling, of course, as well as linebackers Brad Johnson and Sherrod Greene.
“I think I’m good if I got those three with me, I’ll be all right,” White said, laughing. “I promise you.”