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April 25, 2006The South Carolina defense will look a whole lot different in 2006. The top seven tacklers from last season are no longer with the program while the eighth (Mike West) is now playing wide receiver.
The top returning tackler still playing defense? Say hello to Brandon Isaac.
The linebacker corps must be totally revamped. All three starters in the bowl game were seniors. Another linebacker (Dustin Lindsey) was lost to academic ineligibility.
The defensive secondary took a serious hit when two of its best players - Ko Simpson and Johnathan Joseph - elected to forego their remaining years of eligibility and enter the NFL Draft.
Obviously, with a considerable rebuilding project in front of them, there are a lot of questions for USC's coaches and players.
Here are five predictions for the USC defense with the start of the 2006 season four months away.
STANLEY DOUGHTY WILL FINALLY FULFILL
THE ENORMOUS EXPECTATIONS OF THE COACHES:
Pound-for-pound, junior defensive tackle Stanley Doughty may be the most talented player on the USC defense. Unfortunately, there's just too many of them. Pounds, that is.
If Doughty listens to his coaches - something he hasn't always done in the past - and loses about 15 to 20 pounds to improve his quickness, he could become one of the most feared defensive tackles in the SEC.
USC's coaches are cautiously optimistic about Doughty's performance in 2006, but unresolved questions remain.
"He has potential but a lot of guys have potential," defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said. "Who knows? Until he pays the price and does the things we ask him to do, we'll never know."
Nix was clearly conveying a message to Doughty - listed at 6-foot and 331 pounds in the spring media guide - when he demoted the Greensburg, La., native to second-team defensive tackle behind sophomore Nathan Pepper in the post-spring depth chart.
"Nathan Pepper is playing better and doing the things we're asking him to do," Nix said. "Hopefully, Stanley will keep working and eventually get his weight under control and be the player we expect him to be."
Doughty faced the same questions about his weight at this time last year and they persisted well into fall camp when he failed to arrive on campus in tip-top condition.
Still, Doughty overcame that slow start to enjoy a productive season (24 tackles and team-high 3.5 sacks) as he jumped in and out of the starting lineup.
Look for Doughty to finally get the message from the coaches and put together his season yet.
RYAN BROWN WILL THRIVE AT DEFENSIVE END
Ryan Brown was one of the most highly recruited linebackers in the nation when he signed with USC out of Berkeley High School in 2003. But, three years later, he's still trying to find his way at the major college level.
After a redshirt season, Brown played sparingly in 2004. He started one game in 2005 and finished with 20 tackles as an outside linebacker.
It took one season and part of one spring practice for the current coaching staff to determine Brown was simply too slow to play linebacker in the SEC.
So they moved the native of Moncks Corner, S.C., to defensive end, where he has, somewhat surprisingly, thrived. Brown, who now weighs about 250 pounds, was listed on the post-spring depth chart as the starter at the defensive end position vacated by Orus Lambert.
Brown is ahead of sophomore Dakota Walker, who tied for the team lead with 3.5 sacks in 2005.
"He's done what we asked him to do," Nix said. "If you watched a couple of our scrimmages, Ryan Brown showed up, rushing the passer at times. He performed. He could potentially get bigger. He's the best we have right now. We're going to coach him and get him better."
SYVELLE NEWTON WILL SEE
PLENTY OF ACTION AT SAFETY:
Up until now, Syvelle Newton has played his entire college career on the offensive side of the ball. He's excelled at quarterback (70-of-131 for 1,093 yards in 2004), wide receiver (22 catches in 2003, 27 catches in 2005), and running back (150 yards in 2005).
In the Vanderbilt game last season, he played all three positions.
So it came as a surprise to some when it was revealed this spring that Newton, currently rehabilitating from a torn Achilles tendon sustained on a touchdown run in the 35-28 victory over Vanderbilt on Oct. 22, intended to move to safety for his senior season.
Of course, a major question is whether Newton will be ready in time for the start of the season. If he is, Nix said Newton will add depth to a position that was depleted by graduation and the loss of Ko Simpson to the NFL Draft.
"Right now Syvelle is listed as a possible safety," said Nix, who acknowledged Newton may not be a defensive back when fall camp opens.
"We think he's a heck of a talent," Nix continued. "We'd like to have as many fast guys who can think as possible. He's a guy who can make plays. We need guys who will go out there and make plays instead of watching it happen. Guys who will make it happen."
If Newton is physically ready to play when fall camp opens, he'll get a long look at safety.
JASPER BRINKLEY WILL BECOME
A FORCE AT MIDDLE LINEBACKER
The departure of three senior starters (Ricardo Hurley, Terrell Davis, Lance Laury) to graduation and the loss of sophomore Dustin Lindsey to academic troubles left USC's linebacker corps undermanned and undersized.
But Brinkley, listed at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, showed during the spring he has the size and speed to play linebacker effectively in the SEC.
Spurrier was certainly impressed by Brinkley, who, along with his twin brother Casper, thought by some to be more talented than Jasper, could form one part of a dynamic duo in the middle of the Gamecocks defense.
In fact, early in the spring, Spurrier said Brinkley was hitting too hard and the coaches had to slow him down. But the natural aggression didn't affect Brinkley, who Spurrier compared favorable to linebackers on some of USC's biggest rivals.
"He's a tough, good-looking inside linebacker," Spurrier said. "He looks like those linebackers that play at Georgia and Tennessee and those other places. He's got an excellent chance (to start). He has a good chance to help us."
Brinkley was listed at first-team middle linebacker in the post-spring depth chart alongside sophomore Marvin Sapp and surprising redshirt freshman Brent Davis.
DEPTH IN THE SECONDARY
WILL BECOME A PROBLEM
If you look beyond the fact USC allowed Clemson to escape a first-and-35 situation by completing a couple of long passes, the statistics show that the secondary was one of USC's bright spots on defense last season.
The Gamecocks ranked fifth in pass defense in the SEC and 22nd in the nation with 186.5 yards allowed per game. But the premature losses of Simpson and Joseph to the NFL Draft will likely hurt USC's depth at defensive back next season.
The only proven player on the back line is senior cornerback Fred Bennett, who struggled for most of last year to overcome shoulder surgery performed after the 2004 season.
"Fred's going to have to take on a big role in helping bring along some of the young guys," Nix said.
The other starting cornerback is sophomore Carlos Thomas, who spent most of last season flipping between wide receiver and defensive back. He even played both positions in the same game. His interception in the end zone near the end of the first half against Georgia was one of the defensive highlights of 2005.
The safety position is more jumbled. Chris Hampton and Ty Erving were named by Nix as the starters at the conclusion of spring practice but their situation is tenuous at best. Brandon Isaac missed most of the spring recovering from an injury.
All you need to know about the secondary's current lack of experienced depth is this: walk-on Aubrey McKay is listed as the backup to Fred Bennett at cornerback, while Mychal Belcher, who grayshirted last season, is the backup to Hampton at strong safety.
The other two backups are redshirt freshmen Jeremy Ware (Thomas) and Damien Wright (Erving), who may be moved to linebacker.
Stoney Woodson started one game as a redshirt freshman last season and finished with nine tackles and two fumble recoveries but was slowed late in the spring by a hamstring injury and was left off the depth chart.
The lack of experienced depth in the secondary is one of the reasons Newton will move to safety in the fall.
Spurrier, when asked for his thoughts on the secondary following the spring game, brought laughter when he answered a question with a question.
"I don't know, what do you think?" asked Spurrier, who said the secondary struggled in the spring game despite using just two basic coverages.
Due to the depth problem, Nix is counting on one or more of the incoming freshmen defensive backs to push the incumbents for playing time in the fall.
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