Hits came from all angles from Jacksonville State’s defense this past season.
Left end. Right end. Up the middle. Opposing players had to stay alert at all times with the Buck Buchanan Award winner Darius Jackson flying around the edge and zoning in on quarterbacks and running backs.
Jonathan Hagler, who led the team in tackles last season, had the next level on lock. Longtime defensive coordinator David Blackwell seemed to have the right assignments dialed up.
But Blackwell has moved back to his alma mater, East Carolina, and accepted a position on the staff there, and Jackson, Hagler and others have completed their eligibility. Even so, here are five players who should lead the Gamecocks’ defensive unit into the new season.
1. Marlon Bridges, safety
It feels like Bridges has been a leader for Jacksonville State for the last five years. Unfortunately for opponents, he’ll only be a junior in 2018.
In two seasons, Bridges has racked up plenty of All-America and All-Ohio Valley Conference honors. He has a legitimate shot at the all-time tackle record. In two seasons, he has 168, which is 58 shy of Brandon Bender’s 226 stops at the No. 10 all-time spot. Eric Mims has the mark at 378. With back-to-back 105-tackle seasons, Bridges is there.
2. Randy Robinson, defensive line
Even though defensive line coach Todd Bates left the Gamecocks for Clemson a few years back, the guys up front have continued to make up one of the strongest position groups on the team.
Last year, Robinson’s 3.5 sacks ranked second on the team to Jackson’s 7.0. His 35 tackles were most among lineman and eighth on the team. The stats may not be there as a junior, because that’s because he’s fighting off double and triple teams that ultimately frees up linebackers to find the ball carrier.
3. Quan Stoudemire, linebacker
There may not be a player who has emerged as quietly as Stoudemire.
A year ago, he had more total tackles than Jackson, who was named an All-American. He has a nose for the ball and an eagerness to make people remember his name. As Jackson and fellow linebacker Joel McCandless have completed their eligibility, what better time for Stoudemire to do just that? Keep your eyes on No. 35.
4. Traco Williams, safety
Like Stoudemire, Williams has quietly emerged as one of the better players among the JSU defense.
His 53 tackles last season ranked fifth on the team, but he’s got a chance to fill Hagler’s void, so that number likely will increase in 2018. Head coach John Grass’ staff have to replace Siran Neal and Reggie Hall, so there’s a better than normal odds that Williams ends up with more than one interception after failing to record one a season ago.
5. Connor Christian, defensive line
Christian really busted onto the scene in 2017.
With 33 tackles with 5.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, he has caught the attention of the Gamecocks’ opponents. He’ll line up alongside Robinson and likely benefit from a few of those double teams. Another year in the weight room with strength coach Gavin Halford surely will have Christian bidding for all-conference and possibly All-America honors by the time the Gamecocks enter the postseason.