South Carolina Football: Trio of NFL-eligible Gamecock defensive linemen announce returns

South Carolina football's TJ Sanders has been one of the best defensive performers this offseason. [Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union]
South Carolina football's TJ Sanders has been one of the best defensive performers this offseason. [Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union] /

South Carolina football fans didn’t have a ton to smile about with their defense this season. However, despite the overall bleakness, there were some legitimate bright spots.

Athletic defensive tackle TJ Sanders was one of those bright spots. The Marion, South Carolina native barely played high school football but has developed into a big-time contributor for the Gamecocks and has generated some NFL buzz.

Sanders led the Gamecocks with 4.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss this season, and he led the team’s defensive linemen with 43 tackles. His disruption wasn’t limited just to tackling players behind the line of scrimmage, however, as he was also second among all front-7 players in passes defended for the South Carolina football team.

Some mild transfer portal rumors and the call of the NFL had Gamecock football fans wondering if the redshirt sophomore would return to Columbia next year. On Monday, he put an end to the speculation by signing an NIL deal with Garnet Trust, the official NIL collective of South Carolina Athletics.

Fellow versatile defensive lineman Tonka Hemingway had flashed enough ability in his career to be selected to several preseason All-SEC teams, but he didn’t have a great start to the 2023 season. He turned things around to finish very well, re-igniting some of the NFL buzz that he had during the previous offseason.

In the season’s final 8 games, Hemingway averaged almost 4 tackles per game and added all 4.5 of his tackles for loss and his 1.5 sacks in those games. He also recovered two big fumbles in those games and had 6 of his defensive line-leading 7 passes defended.

There was a small amount of NFL talk surrounding Hemingway and a large amount of transfer portal speculation (particularly rumors about him reuniting with former defensive line coach Jimmy Lindsey at LSU), but #91 put all of that talk to bed on Sunday night with a post to his Instagram.

A different type of defensive tackle, Boogie Huntley is one of the only players on the roster who can play a shade/1-technique with much consistency. He’s too small to play that role, but he has enough strength and fight to give the Gamecocks valuable snaps inside.

He had a really good game against Mississippi State this season with 2 sacks and 2 passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage and flashed some plus-ability as a run stopper at times. He is a high-effort player who never quits. Perhaps his biggest contribution to the South Carolina football team is actually off the field, though, as he is one of the biggest leaders on the roster.

There was a little bit of NFL talk around the Columbia native, and then some mild transfer portal stuff was floating out there. However, in the end, Huntley is joining Sanders and Hemingway as defensive tackle returners for the Gamecocks after signing an NIL deal with the Garnet Trust.

All three of Sanders, Hemingway, and Huntley won an SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honor this season (Sanders against Georgia, Hemingway against Vanderbilt, Huntley against Mississippi State), and their returns will be big for a defense that hopes to improve in 2024.

Especially if South Carolina football continues to utilize a 3-man front next season, the versatility of Sanders and Hemingway will be a big boost for the defense. Both players can play inside at defensive tackle or outside at the big defensive end spots, and they are also both athletic enough in pass rush situations to play on 3rd-and-long.

Huntley is the only player on the current roster who has held up as a nose tackle. While he can’t play that role for 60 snaps a game, the Gamecocks couldn’t afford to have lost their best guy at that spot this offseason.

Plus, as an added bonus for South Carolina football fans, all three of the big defensive linemen played some snaps on offense this season. Hemingway has done a few things for the Gamecocks on that side of the ball over the years but ran in a short touchdown this season. Huntley caught one of his own, and Sanders was targeted on a 2-point conversion.

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