When South Carolina linebackers coach Coleman Hutzler approached Daniel Fennell soon after Will Muschamp’s staff was hired, the redshirt freshman wasn’t sure about what he was being asked to do.
Coaching staffs often ask players to push themselves, but this was a full step into the unknown for the linebacker, something he admitted terrified him.
“I never played D-line in my life,” Fennell said. “So even though it’s a hybrid-type deal, still. I never even played in any type of situation with my hand on the ground. So it was way different and I just have to go with it.”
He’d been a linebacker at Grayson High School in Georgia. He was recruited as a linebacker. He sat in linebacker meetings up until his coach came to him directing him elsewhere.
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And somehow he exited spring practice with a No. 1 spot on the depth chart at the team’s hybrid outside rusher Buck spot.
“That’s what you work for,” Fennell said. “You come to college to get educated. But at the same time, you came to play football. And after redshirting, you really do want to get out there and show that you’re here for a reason. So a lot of work went into it, and it’s good that something came out of it.”
The Buck spot got a lot of press with Will Muschamp’s arrival, as the position keys the pass rush. Dante Fowler played the spot at Florida and grew into a No. 3 overall draft pick.
South Carolina tried a range of players at the spot, including freshman standout Boosie Whitlow, senior Darius English and even linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams.
But at spring’s end it was Fennell, all 6-foot-3, 235 pounds of natural linebacker, who admitted he’d never even been in a serious pass-rushing role.
It was quite a rapid shift from spending a redshirt year on the sidelines, something he admitted wasn’t easy.
He, like just about every other Gamecock, had his falls defined by the rhythms and schedules of a season. He’d been recruited to play football, but from September to November of 2015, he wasn’t really playing in the strictest sense of the word.
“It was just tough,” Fennell said. “And I think it really was a driving factor in how I came out this year and approached things. But it was tough.”
That was followed by the terrifying conversation with Hutzler and launching into the spring. Fennell said the coaches only told him to keep working hard, and it apparently paid off.
In the coming month, he’ll have to try to hold off the field to secure the job. English is still a pass rush threat. Some of the group of incoming linemen could eventually slot in as Bucks. The staff expects to rotate players, so it’s likely he’ll get some work, but he can’t take that top spot for granted.
“You can’t stop working,” Fennell said. “You can’t be satisfied with anything that’s happened before. You’ve just got to keep going with your motor.”