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Gamecocks' DL Needs More Than Clowney

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Jadeveon Clowney seems confident, but he'll need some help on the defensive line. Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images.
Jadeveon Clowney seems confident, but he'll need some help on the defensive line. Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images.

No one is going to question Jadeveon Clowney’s ability to dominate on defense. However, he’s been ramping up expectations prior to the 2013 season.

At media day Clowney claimed he could chase down the speedy Johnny Manziel. He also sent sports radio into a frenzy by saying that quarterbacks were afraid of him and named names. According to Clowney, the fearful QBs include Georgia’ Aaron Murray and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (and also former Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson, which isn’t all that impressive).

Clowney also told reporters that he’s shooting for 20 sacks this season. That’s especially impressive given that Clowney has only recorded 21 sacks in his first two seasons at South Carolina.

While there’s nothing wrong with an abundance of confidence, Clowney may be writing checks that his defensive line mates can’t cash.

Last season defensive tackle Byron Jerideau and defensive end Devin Taylor aided and abetted Jadeveon Clowney in his pursuit of possibly fearful quarterbacks. Jerideau had 25 tackles and 2.5 sacks. More importantly, he ate up space in the center of the defensive line. Playing on the opposite side of Clowney, Taylor tallied 27 tackles and 3 sacks. He ensured that teams couldn't stack up on one side of the line. Taylor commanded attention that helped isolate Clowney on the other side of the defensive line.

Losing those two important players means that the 2013 incarnation of the Gamecocks’ defensive front will need to mesh together in a way that will facilitate Clowney’s chase for 20 sacks in a season.

Though Taylor probably was the better player of the two lost starters, he might be the easiest to replace. Chaz Sutton saw significant playing time and made the most of it. As a junior, Sutton had 21 tackles and 5 sacks. This season, as a senior, Sutton could be set to establish himself as a terrific D-lineman in his own right. If Sutton continues to blast by offensive tackles, teams won’t be able to ignore him in favor of concentrating on Clowney. Stretching offensive lines will be crucial if South Carolina and Clowney are going to live up to the defensive domination that’s expected and needed if the Gamecocks are going to compete at the highest level.

There’s less certainty in terms of who will replace Jerideau. Returning starter Kelcy Quarles will occupy one defensive tackle spot. For his size, Quarles has pretty good mobility. Given the question marks surrounding the linebackers, Quarles might be forced to focus more on being a run-stopper.

So the big question is, who will pair up with Quarles and fill the roll of a space-eater that can occupy offensive linemen intent on hedging toward Clowney?

J.T. Surratt and Gerald Dixon Jr. are the two front-runners for those duties. Both are more than 300 pounds, but both played sparingly last season. Surratt is a junior and had more of an impact last year than Dixon Jr. To be fair, Dixon Jr. was just a freshman last year, which explains his limited playing time.

Both guys are unproven, but have potential. At least one of those two will need to step up to become the fourth player in a defensive line capable of punching through into the backfield. It will take a strong unit to ensure that Clowney doesn’t drown in a sea of double-teams. If his running mates on the defensive line take some of the pressure off, then Clowney can make a serious run at 20 sacks, scare quarterbacks and give South Carolina a real shot at the SEC title game.