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COLUMBIA – South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward doesn't have a problem making changes to suit his personnel.

With the loss of three of his starting defensive linemen, all of which are projected to be playing in the National Football League next season, he understands the Gamecocks will not be as talented up front next season.

The loss of end Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton up front would be a crippling blow to most defenses.

If that wasn't enough, starting cornerbacks Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree have also departed and will most likely also find themselves on NFL rosters.

Does that mean Ward believes the Gamecocks will take a step back on the defensive side of the football during the 2014 season?

Not at all.

"We'll have a chance to hopefully be as good or better than we were last year," Ward said following USC's spring game. "We've got guys who understand we are not going to be able to count on Clowney or Kelcy Quarles to make a play.

"We have 11 guys we can put on the field that will play together as a unit. When you get 11 guys playing as a unit, you'll be OK."

The Gamecocks will still base everything off their 4-2-5 scheme. It has been successful since it was installed by then-USC defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson several years ago.

Ward has had great success in his two seasons as Carolina's defensive coordinator, but has no problem tweaking the attack if it makes his unit more effective. He plans on doing that by supplementing his base attack with a version of the 3-4.

Following a difficult start to the 2013 season, a young group of linebackers began to better understand what was expected and how they fit into overall defensive dynamic.

During the second half of the season, the unit transformed from a weakness to a strength. That got Ward's wheels turning.

Ward preaches getting his best 11 athletes on the field. For that to happen in 2014 he has to find a way to use as many of the talented young linebackers as he can.

"We have a lot of athletes on defense," said Skai Moore, who led the team in both tackles and interceptions as a freshman linebacker last season. "Losing those guys last year, those big-player guys in front of you, it's going to be different. But I feel like it's a lot better that we have a lot of athletes out there running around making plays."

It would be silly to say the defensive front can come close to rivaling the 2013 version. It does have a chance to be better than many believe, however.

J.T. Surratt, the lone returning starter, will not only again start at tackle, but will get a chance to line up outside and rush the quarterback when the team is in its 3-4 package.

There is a lot of depth up front. Gerald Dixon, Jr., who received experience a year ago, is slated to back up Surratt.

Junior Phillip Dukes and sophomore Kelsey Griffin will share the tackle position opposite Surratt. Another tackle that displayed improvement during the spring is redshirt sophomore Deon Green.

The wildcard of the group is highly regarded junior college transfer, Abu Lamin. In addition to playing tackle in the 4-2-5, he is also the top candidate to play nose tackle in the 3-4.

Gerald Dixon and Darius English are slated to start at end, with Mason Harris and Darius English the backups.

The key to the defense will be finding quality cornerbacks. Several highly regarded freshmen will be on campus in the summer. At least a couple will have to pitch in immediately.

How long that takes could be the key how the defense fares.

"We won't have a pass rusher or a guy that can just break down an offensive line or big play guys like we've had in the past," said Ward. "But we have enough players that, if they play together, we'll be fine."

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