Today's report card focuses on the linebacking corps.
Discussion: Quick, name the two linebackers who started the SEC Championship game and their jersey numbers. If you said Josh Dickerson (41) and Tony Straughter (44), you'd be right. If those names and numbers weren't on the tip of your tongue, then you'd be in the majority of gamecock fans. After years of headlining linebackers like Jasper Brinkley and Eric Norwood, this year's group didn't make the headlines, but don't assume that their relative obscurity means that they weren't doing their job.
Looking at the numbers for the linebackers, you'll notice that we've included Antonio Allen and Damario Jeffrey with this group. They both play the hybrid spur position, but many of their responsibilities are similar to a traditional Sam linebacker, so we think they fit as well here as anywhere.
Coming into this season, there wasn't much hype surrounding the linebackers. What buzz was in the air was about Shaq Wilson and how he is the 'quarterback' of the defense. An ailing hamstring took Wilson out for the season and others had to step up. Dickerson and Straughter, two former junior college players, were the ones called on.
Our linebackers' primary responsibility is stopping the run. With a 4-2-5 defense, we tacitly commit 6 to the run and 5 to the pass before the play unfolds. Judged by that standard, our linebackers had a stellar season. As we noted in the defensive line report card, the Gamecock run defense was stout all year. A big part of that was this linebacking corps. If their grade was based solely on that criterion, they would certainly score well.
The linebackers are also asked to defend the pass, rush the passer and stop runners in the backfield. The latter two responsibilities, when successful, make headlines for the defense. This is an area where our linebackers weren't as effective. They weren't incredible against the pass either, but without delving into what coverage was called, it's difficult to assign responsibility for breakdowns.
The spur position has many similar responsibilities to the linebackers, but with more emphasis on pass defense than run defense. Antonio Allen came on in early mid season to secure the starting role. He continued to improve throughout the year and allowed Coach Ellis Johnson to be more creative with how the spur is used. When Allen, or anyone else playing the spur, is playing well Coach Johnson can be increasingly effective with his defense. Many of the late season defensive successes, namely Florida and Clemson, were characterized by strong Spur play.
Grade: B+. A lot of this grade has to do with the team's strong run defense and the stout play of the spur. This position didn't grab headlines, but not everyone can. They quietly did their job and did it well. They didn't have many SportsCenter highlights, but they didn't need them either.
Glancing Ahead: Antonio Allen should be back at Spur, but both Dickerson and Straughter are seniors and will be gone. The Gamecocks will still have plenty of experience at linebacker, though. Shaq Wilson is expected to return from injury, and Rodney Paulk has been granted a 6th year of eligibility. That's plenty of experience and talent, and this unit should be one of the best, if not very deep, next year.