South Carolina newcomers look to boost defense
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) New defensive tackle Ulric Jones can't wait to make an impact at South Carolina. And he's not the only one as the Gamecocks open practice Tuesday.
Jones, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound lineman, is among several new faces seeking a spot this fall to fix one of the team's weaknesses a year ago. The Gamecocks were among one of the fiercest defensive lines in the Southeastern Conference from 2011-13, featuring high NFL draft picks Melvin Ingram, Kelcy Quarles and Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 overall selection in 2014.
But South Carolina did not generate much pressure last year, finishing last in the SEC in sacks and next-to-last in total defense.
Jones, along with fellow junior college linemen Marquavius Lewis and Dante Sawyer, figures to immediately boost that unit.
Coach Steve Spurrier took steps to shore up a defense that squandered three double-digit leads in the fourth quarter last year. The drop-off was a big reason South Carolina slid to 7-6 after three straight 11-win seasons.
Spurrier was encouraged by what he saw after two hours in the scorching South Carolina summer sun.
''I know all the defensive coaches are really happy with the new players, a lot of these freshmen and junior college players,'' he said. ''So it's going to be a different defense, we all know that.''
Part of that was ensured by Spurrier's offseason move of bringing in Jon Hoke to co-coordinate the defense with Lorenzo Ward. Hoke headed up the defense for Spurrier at Florida from 1999-2001 before spending the next 13 years as an NFL assistant with Houston and Chicago.
Hoke has moved the Gamecocks to a straight 4-3 alignment up front rather than the 4-2-5 configuration they had used the past few seasons. Hoke is also overseeing defensive backs, his task in the NFL.
Hoke said the players adjusted well in the spring, but summer workouts add new players to the mix who have to get up to speed.
Ward said the Gamecocks who are returning don't like what they went through last season and are eager to make up for it - if they are not pushed to the side by the new players.
''The new players, anytime you have competition going on at positions, you make everybody else better,'' he said. ''I think that's what we've got going on at defense right now.''
South Carolina's newest additions certainly look like full-grown football players.
Lewis is 6-3 and 264 pounds. He had 63 tackles and 11 sacks last year at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. He enrolled in January and his work in spring drills elevated him to starting defensive end.
Isn't that a ton of pressure for someone who hadn't played a down of big-time college football?
''No pressure, not at all,'' Lewis said. ''I know my teammates got my back and we're all trying to work hard out here.''
Defense isn't the only issue for South Carolina, which is going through the most uncertain quarterback competition in the 11 seasons Spurrier has been in charge. He said four players - Connor Mitch, Perry Orth, Michael Scarnecchia and true freshman Lorenzo Nunez - had about the same number of snaps without anyone taking an early hold of the job.
Spurrier likes the approach and attitude he's seen early on.
''Overall, it was fun to see the new guys,'' he said. ''That's sort of the thrilling part of coaching in college.''