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Spring non-QB position battle: South Carolina's edge rushers

Will Muschamp is usually a frank guy, and South Carolina’s coach didn’t pull any punches when assessing the Gamecocks’ pass rush a few days ago.

“Defensively we’ve got to continue to make some strides up front and be able to affect the quarterback with four guys rushing,” Muschamp told reporters after Saturday’s scrimmage. “We’re struggling to do that.”

The edge rush has been problematic since Muschamp arrived in Columbia and Muschamp has made it clear that the Gamecocks are nowhere near where they need to be if they are to improve upon last year’s middling results. It won’t get any easier in 2017 since last season’s starting defensive ends -- Darius English and Marquavius Lewis -- were both seniors.

This will be a continuing competition to watch in Saturday’s spring game (noon, SEC Network) and well into preseason practice, following the arrival of signees who could upgrade the pass rush.

Here’s where things stand now:

Departed: Darius English, Marquavius Lewis

Spring contenders: Dante Sawyer, D.J. Wonnum, Danny Fennell, Shameik Blackshear, Griffin Gentry, Dexter Wideman, Bryson Allen-Williams

Summer contenders: Brad Johnson, Aaron Sterling, Davonne Bowen, Damani Staley, Eldridge Thompson

The skinny: Out of South Carolina’s 70 tackles for loss (90th in FBS at 5.4 per game) and 21 sacks (tied for 97th at 1.62 per game), 18.5 TFLs and 10.5 sacks walked out the door when English and Lewis exhausted their eligibility at the end of the 2016 season.

So where does that leave the Gamecocks? Apparently not in a great place, with Muschamp recently noting that they lack depth up front, as well as the pass-rushing talent necessary to win the SEC East.

He has credited Sawyer (25 tackles, 4 TFLs, 1 sack in 2016), Wonnum (32 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks) and Fennell (1 tackle) at points this spring, but that group needs to seriously improve its production if South Carolina is to boast a formidable pass rush. They might also get some help from an outside linebacker like Allen-Williams (75 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, 2 sacks) or Skai Moore (who sat out all of last season), two of the Gamecocks’ better defensive playmakers.

However, those players might not be enough to get the pass rush where it needs to be.

“We’re going to have to have some guys come in and help us defensively in the fall that aren’t here yet, and that’s always a concern when you leave spring, but that’s where we are,” Muschamp said.

The good news is there might be a couple of early contributors in the 2017 signing class. ESPN 300 honoree Sterling will arrive this summer, as will three-star pass-rushing prospects Johnson and Bowen.

Perhaps the youngsters will help, but this bunch still has a lot to prove to its coaching staff.

Prediction: It will be great if at least one freshman steps up to bolster South Carolina’s pass rush, but the biggest key will probably be Sawyer and Wonnum’s production. If those two are able to develop into consistent threats off the edge, it will do wonders for the Gamecocks’ defensive effectiveness. If they aren’t, expect another season of mediocre-or-worse results.