Ex-Vance star Larenz Bryant on Charlotte homecoming: Don’t dismiss South Carolina’s defense

South Carolina linebacker Larenz Bryant says fans and media will be surprised how improved the Gamecocks’ defense will be this season.
South Carolina linebacker Larenz Bryant says fans and media will be surprised how improved the Gamecocks’ defense will be this season.

You have tickets for Thursday’s football opener between South Carolina and North Carolina you’re not using? Former Vance High star Larenz Bryant would love to hear from you.

You think the Gamecocks’ defense will be as bad this season as it was last season? Then definitely don’t contact Bryant. He doesn’t want to hear any of that.

“People are underestimating us. People are doubting us,” Bryant said following practice Sunday. “But it’s not about them. It’s about us. We’re the ones running the sprints after practice. We’re the ones in meetings every day.

“We’re ready to shock the world. I’m 100 percent that my team is ready to play. And 100 percent I’m ready to play, too.”

The Gamecocks play North Carolina Thursday (6 p.m., ESPN) in a college football opener at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium. Bryant is the only Charlottean on scholarship with this team and one of just seven North Carolinians on the roster.

A 6-foot, 220-pound linebacker, Bryant patiently waited for his opportunity. Entering his third season in the program, he’s listed as a starter at strong-side linebacker for the opener. (Though his playing time in this game might be limited by how much North Carolina goes with spread offense, causing South Carolina to add defensive backs to the lineup.)

Bryant has plenty of reason to be excited about Thursday night: a nationally-televised game played in his hometown with a handful of close friends and family in the stands. But seemingly this is less about that than aspiring to prove South Carolina’s defensive struggles last season were an anomaly.

“Everyone is counting us out,” Bryant said. “Everyone feels like, based on last year, that the defense doesn’t have anything. We’ve got a couple of key components, a couple of key players who I feel make the defense go a lot smoother, a lot faster and a lot more physical up-front.

“Every team is going to be tested, but this team (the Tar Heels) is a little bit faster at the edges. Ultimately it will be about how much we want it.”

The Gamecocks won both meetings with the Tar Heels during Steve Spurrier’s 11-season tenure as South Carolina coach. But Thursday looks more competitive; the Tar Heels also struggled defensively last season, but they averaged more than 33 points per game last season and are still loaded on offense, built around former Mallard Creek High quarterback Marquise Williams.

South Carolina allowed more than 30 points and 433 yards per game last season, which quickly explains the 7-6 record and fourth-place finish in the SEC East. There was next to no pass rush with the Gamecocks totaling 14 sacks to opponents’ collective 27.

That prompted change. Jon Hoke was added as co-defensive coordinator to augment what Lorenzo Ward was doing.

The fun part about this game is Bryant again gets to match up with Williams, a longtime friend and rival from high school days in Charlotte.

“I played him a couple of times. I respect him a lot. A good friend of mine,” said Bryant, who was then asked to characterize Williams’ game.

“What he’s doing now -- both running and passing the ball,” Bryant replied. “He got bigger and stronger. He looks like he’s running a little bit faster. They have to come with it and we have to come with it.”

Williams and Bryant could easily be teammates right now. North Carolina was one of about 25 colleges that offered Bryant a scholarship. He passed on offers from, among others, Alabama and Florida to play for South Carolina.

That was a very personal decision that was about geography and family. Bryant’s family moved from Charleston, to Charlotte when he was 7. He considers Charlotte his hometown now, but still has numerous relatives in the Charleston area.

Asked Sunday why he chose the Gamecocks, Bryant offered a geography lesson: If you want to include family from Charlotte and Charleston in your college football experience, Columbia is a pretty easy and obvious choice.

Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell