Resuming our post season report cards, today we look at the defensive line.
Discussion: There wasn't much hype surrounding the defensive line in the off season. It was thought that Cliff Matthews would be a strong pass rushing end, and that the other players would be adequate. Past years of poor rush defense had tempered much of the excitement for the defensive line. We should have been more excited.
This year's defensive line played as well as any in recent memory. What had been a porous run defense in prior years was the best in the conference and 9th in the nation. The defensive tackles clogged the middle of the field and kept the second and third levels free to come up in support. Occupying multiple linemen doesn't have a place in the stat sheet and doesn't get much attention from many of the fans and commentators, but it is as vital to a defense's success as tackles for loss. This was an area in which the interior line excelled.
With the exception of the Auburn game, no one was really able to get much of a running game going. Think back to how dominant the Alabama rushing attack was coming in to that game. The defensive line's play was the reason Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson were held to so few yards. Similarly, Southern Miss and Florida run complicated rushing attacks that were bottled up.
The defensive line was strong against the pass. They were among the nation's leaders in sacks most of the year. They finished 10th in the country with an average of 3 a game. Without this pressure, it's difficult to say just how bad the pass defense numbers could have been.
If there was an area of disappointment, it would be the play of Cliff Matthews. He was expected to be a dominant force that disrupted opposing offenses. Although he came on stronger later in the season, he got off to something of a slow start. Don't get me wrong; he didn't have a bad season, but expectations were so high for him, it would have been difficult for him to meet them.
Where Cliff Matthews didn't have the season some might have hoped for, Devin Taylor did. Taylor came on to ably play the other end. He was disruptive in the backfield with 7.5 sacks and also broke up several passes dropping into coverage.
Grade: A-. This group really did do well. If South Carolina wants to compete for and win championships they will have to be able to take away an opponent's rushing game. These players showed how that is to be done, and they are a big reason the Gamecocks were SEC East Division champions. The only reason they don't get an A outright is because of the two Auburn games. In the first they were unable to effectively stop the run, and in the second they couldn't sack the quarterback.
Glancing Ahead: Cliff Matthews and Ladi Ajiboye are both gone, and they are big losses. Defensive line depth is always a concern when you don't have it and a tremendous asset when you do. The composition of next year's unit won't be very clear until signing day. If Quarles and Clowney come, they could have an immediate impact. If they don't, then it will be time for last year's prized recruits to step in.