South Carolina football: 3 questions at defensive line

Zacch Pickens #26 and Rick Sandidge #90 of the South Carolina Gamecocks. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Zacch Pickens #26 and Rick Sandidge #90 of the South Carolina Gamecocks. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) /

The South Carolina football season is getting closer, and there are questions and battles at each position ahead of the season’s start. Here, we focus on the defensive line unit.

The Gamecocks’ season opener is set to be played on September 26th, though the opponent is not yet known. As the 10-game campaign creeps closer, South Carolina has just a little bit longer to answer unknown questions, sort through position battles, and get prepared for game one.

Today, we look at three questions that face the South Carolina defensive line group.


South Carolina lost two of its top defensive linemen from last year’s squad as Javon Kinlaw and DJ Wonnum are both moving on to the NFL. Kinlaw, a first round pick, tied for the team lead in sacks on his way to an all-conference season. Wonnum was a four-year starter that set the edge at the BUCK position.

How do the Gamecocks replace these two in 2020? Let’s start at defensive tackle. Over the past few cycles, South Carolina has brought in five-star prospect Zacch Pickens and four-star player Rick Sandidge. Pickens put together an all-SEC season in limited time as a freshman, recording 16 tackles, while Sandidge totaled 19 tackles and a half a sack.

Both will be expected to step up in 2020. South Carolina also gets the benefit of bringing back four-year starter Keir Thomas after the senior missed most of last year with an injury. He’ll fill in at both tackle and end in next season’s defense.

At BUCK, Brad Johnson will likely get the first start after missing last year with an injury. Behind him are three freshmen. It’s imperative that he get off to a quick start to keep the defense from having to throw that inexperience into the fire too early.


The Gamecocks brought in a stellar 2020 defensive line class, which included top 10 player Jordan Burch and four-star prospects Alex Huntley and Tonka Hemingway. Will they make an impact in 2020?

Burch is expected to play at the BUCK position that was vacated by DJ Wonnum. He may have the quickest path to a starting or significant role. Huntley and Hemingway both project to see action at tackle, but they’ll have a few older guys in ahead of them on the depth chart.

Late addition Gilber Edmond will also get his chance to make an impact at end or BUCK, and 300-pounder Makius Scott will join Huntley and Hemingway at tackle.


South Carolina averaged two sacks a game last year, good for 72nd nationally. Can they improve upon that number in 2020, even with the losses from last season’s team?

Let’s take a look at what’s coming back. Aaron Sterling returns at end after tying for the team lead in sacks. He’ll be expected to play a prominent role at defensive end. Pass rush specialist JJ Enagbare also returns after posting 3.5 sacks in limited action.

Junior Brad Johnson will get the first look at BUCK. He’s returning from a 2019 injury that caused him to miss the majority of the year. Through his first two seasons, Johnson has totaled 29 tackles and 3.5 sacks.

And finally, Keir Thomas, Rick Sandidge, and Zacch Pickens will try to provide a pass rush from the inside. Thomas leads the way with 14 total tackles for loss and 5.5. career sacks.

The Gamecocks should have a formidable defensive line in 2020, despite the loss of their seniors. They’ll need to create more pressure next year to help out a talented South Carolina secondary.

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