When South Carolina football took the field for its first scrimmage of the spring season this past weekend and the second team defense trotted out for some reps, a young man by the name of James Bartholomew lined up at cornerback.
If you’re not familiar with Bartholomew, you’re likely not alone. A 5-foot-9 walk-on from Hilton Head, he spent the previous three years at USC but not on the football team, only officially joining the roster Feb. 1. Before that, his only college football experience came in 2017 as a walk-on receiver at Illinois.
And with all due respect to Bartholomew and his work ethic, his role in Saturday’s scrimmage served as a clear reminder of the depth issues the Gamecocks have in the defensive backfield. With cornerback Cam Smith and safety Jaylin Dickerson unavailable due to injury, defensive coordinator Clayton White and position coach Torrian Gray didn’t have six scholarship players capable of playing corner Saturday.
Those depth concerns, coupled with the wave of experienced departures from last year’s roster, has left Gray with a unit he has admitted is “very green.” And from the outside, there’s plenty of talk about the secondary as the perceived weak link in the defense.
“The coaches don’t use that against us, but as players, you always hear the noise,” redshirt senior safety Jaylan Foster said. “That’s something you take every day when you go to practice, so you can get better day in and day out. You can’t really worry about it, because they’re not the ones on the field. We’re the ones on the field, so as long as we go out there and put in the work, we’ll be good on game day.”
That being said, the players are also clear-eyed about the challenge ahead in developing depth — fast.
“We can be really good,” sophomore corner Dominick Hill said. “We just got to just lock in a little bit more and just buy into what coach White and coach Gray want us to do, and just be more communicative back there on the back end — it shows up on the scoreboard if we don’t do our job.”
Even with the likes of All-SEC corners Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu and freshman All-SEC safety Jammie Robinson, the USC secondary struggled in 2020. While opponents threw on the Gamecocks fewer times than any other SEC defense, they ranked seventh in passing yards allowed and 11th in completion percentage allowed. Opponents averaged 8.8 yards per passing attempt, 115th nationally.
But this spring, Hill said, the unit has developed deeper bonds and stayed hungry, knowing how young they are.
“Just learning from last year and this year, how we’re young, so we’re kind of buying in and pulling each other along. When someone messes up, we get on each other, like just staying on one another, really,” Hill said. “And that’s really probably the main difference of last year and this year. ... There’s a couple people with experience, so we just got to keep building off of them and working together as a unit.”
There are reinforcements coming. Junior college transfer Isaiah Norris, FCS transfer Carlins Platel and high school prospect La’Dareyen Craig are both scheduled to arrive on campus after spring ball ends. Norris’ JUCO teammate, Marcellas Dial, is already on the roster and has had every opportunity to get lots of reps this spring. And while he wasn’t around to see what the unit was like last fall, he also expressed confidence that it can improve.
“Definitely the secondary group is gonna be really good this year. We all have that chemistry, that chemistry that most of them say they didn’t have last year with each other. Everybody’s clicking with each other,” Dial said. “So everybody’s trying to make each other better and just pushing each other to be great each and every day. So we’re gonna make plays this year.”