The Gamecock Defense – A Reality Check

Photo: gogamecocks.com

Photo: gogamecocks.com

South Carolina was bad on defense this year.

Check that, South Carolina was very bad on defense this year.

It’s pretty clear to the entire fan base that a bad defense caused this team to finish 6-6 rather than 9-3 or 10-2.  While these are pretty obvious statements, the explanation as to why is not as simple as some folks are making it out to be.  Yes, coaching is likely a part of it. But this issue deserves a deeper look.

During the regular season and after it mercifully came to an end, the majority of the fan base zeroed in and pinned the defensive debacle on one man:  Lorenzo “Whammy” Ward.  And why not?  Isn’t he the coordinator of this bunch of guys who seemed to always be out of position and who bounced off ball carriers at an alarmingly high rate?  Shouldn’t the coordinator of a defense coming off back to back to back 11-2 seasons be better than that?  Well, yes and no.

As fans (and bloggers) we get the luxury of sitting back and playing Monday morning quarterback after every game and season. It’s pretty easy to say we should have blitzed more or played man to man instead of zone after watching the games. But what do we really know about this stuff? I’ve been an avid college football fan my entire life (to give you a clue, I was a Freshman during the “Rodney” game) and think that I know more about the sport than the majority of the folks who have never played or coached the game (of which I am one).

I know they can run a  base 5-2 (in the old days), a 3-4 or a 4-3. I know they can play man or zone. I know they can blitz or not. I know what a stunt is. I know what the Mike is and what the Will is. I know what a Dime package and a Nickel a package look like. I know what a prevent defense looks like (and boy do I hate prevent defense). I know who the boundary corner is and who the field corner is. In short, I know a lot of stuff about defense.

Even with all of my armchair knowledge, however, I’ll admit that I pretty much have no clue how to coach a college defense. So everyone pontificating about how crappy a job Coach Ward did coaching our defense this year needs to slow down a little bit. The guy coached us when we were good on D and has now coached us when we were bad on D (Note: the previous guy who coached us when we were good on D just got fired, again).  Did he make some bad coaching moves? Probably, but I’m not going to write that I know what those moves were. Why not? Because despite all of my observational knowledge of college football, I’m not qualified to do so.

Folks are going to say that Ward obviously sucks because the results are bad and this is a results business. I get that. There’s no trophy for 2nd place. But despite my feeling that we could use a little shake up on D, I’m not going to join in the mob who want to tar and feather Coach Ward. Like with most positions of high scrutiny, the defensive coordinator gets far too much individual credit when the D does well and far too much criticism when the D stinks.

So if it’s not all coaching, what else is it?

If you listened to our last TRC podcast, you heard Tbone and me having a healthy debate on this subject. While I’ve been following college football for a long time, I’ve also followed that other sport that goes hand in hand with it: recruiting. As most knowledgeable fans realize, recruiting is the lifeblood of a program. Without good players your team is going to struggle-it’s as simple as that.

Without reading ahead (no cheating), tell me what three things the following Gamecocks have in common: Jadaveon Clowney, Kelsey Quarles, Cliff Mathews, Johnathan Joseph, Victor Hampton, DeVonte Holloman, DJ Swearinger, Jimmy Legree, Stephon Gilmore, and Devin Taylor?

One: They all play Defense.

Two: They all hail from the State of South Carolina.

Three: They are all former Gamecocks.

I almost had a fourth thing to add:  The NFL. With the exception of Hampton and Legree, I believe that all of them have played meaningful snaps in an NFL game.

Have we had other defensive stalwarts who were not from South Carolina? Sure – a few actually (Antonio Allen, Melvin Ingram, Darien Stewart and Travian Robertson come to mind). This is also a nice list, but you’ll notice that it’s a much shorter than the other one.

So what, you might be asking? What does this have to do with anything?  Well, the “so what” is recruiting top-tier talent to complete with the likes of UGA, Florida, Tennessee, Auburn, Texas A&M and the other schools in our league is extremely difficult. The top players from the states near South Carolina (our recruiting territory) tend to stay in state to play football (or if they don’t stay in state, they go to a “superpower” or “brand” like Alabama or Auburn-and make no mistake, we are nowhere near superpower status despite our recent success). If we get a good player from another state it’s usually a guy who was undersized or under the radar (Allen or Eric Norwood come to mind, and no, UGA did not offer Norwood).  And we’ve benefitted greatly from a down cycle in the state of North Carolina (all schools) and at Tennessee, and therefore have been able to snag guys out of NC who might have stayed in state or called Rocky Top home (Ingram, Robertson, and Chris Culliver come to mind). Our state has a population base much smaller than Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina and produces far fewer D1 football prospects than those states. This is a simple fact. Steve Spurrier and company have done an outstanding job of corralling the home-grown talent  these past few years. One result of those efforts was a better defense. The South Carolina natives I listed above were stars at the college level. Some of these guys are starring in the NFL.

So what happened? A talent drop, that’s what. The talent level in state is down and has been down for the last few years. If you follow recruiting, this is pretty obvious. There simply haven’t been as many elite level players being produced in the state for us to keep home and man our D (or our O for that matter: see Lattimore and Jeffery).

We had three guys from South Carolina play significant snaps on defense this year. Philip Dukes and two guys named Gerald Dixon. These three guys are decent players but nobody is mistaking them for Jadeveon Clowney or Devin Taylor. Here are the home states of some of our other contributors on D:

  • Georgia – Sharrod Golightly, TJ Gurley, Brison Williams, Rico McWilliams, TJ Holloman, Chris Moody, Marcquis Roberts, Bryson Allen-Williams, Chaz Elder, David Johnson, Darius English
  • North Carolina – JT Surratt (probably our best player on D this year with apologies to Brison Williams and Skai Moore), Abu Lamin
  • Alabama – Jonathan Walton, Taylor Stallworth
  • Florida – Skai Moore, Jordan Diggs, Al Harris, Chris Lammons
  • New Jersey – Kaiwan Lewis

Why have we gone out-of-state to recruit these guys? Because the guys in the state of South Carolina were not as good as them, that’s why. And when you go out-of-state you sometimes have to take chances on guys that are undersized, or on guys that are good enough but in danger of not making it academically. Some of these guys pan out, and some of them don’t. We’ve had a bad run of guys not panning out. We’ve had a bad run of missing on guys who had academic issues and couldn’t get in here but got in elsewhere (like Lorenzo Mauldin at Louisville, a probable 1st or 2nd round pick in the upcoming NFL draft).

The point I am making is that it is very difficult to pull elite level players out of other states when you are a school like South Carolina. You can get good players, but elite players from out-of-state almost always go elsewhere (one recent exception: Bryson Allen-Williams, a Ward recruit out of Atlanta, had offers from everyone but came here-this was a rare recruiting victory of its kind). Without elite talent, it’s tough to be consistently successful against the teams we play, no matter how good you are at scheming from the sideline.

So why did the talent in the state of South Carolina drop? There are no solid answers, you just have to chalk it up to a bad cycle. We have to hope that the in talent level gets better and that we are able to keep the guys home. Plus, we absolutely have to keep our current recruiting class in the fold. This class, composed largely of players who saw us go 33-6 during their high schools careers, are mostly from out-of-state (again, there’s very little elite talent in state this year). The only reason we got in the door with some of them is because we went 33-6, which looks “elite”. A 6-6 season put a big damper on the perception of our program. And know that the schools around us are seeking to take advantage.  This is one reason why Ward and the other coaches, the coaches who have the relationships with these recruits, are still on staff. Until we have something that they perceive as better to show them, this is absolutely the right move. You might ask how a school like Auburn can afford to fire its D-coordinator right after the season?  Because Auburn is a brand.

You might also be asking how a team like Missouri, who we out-recruit every year, is better on D than us. I’m not saying that coaching has nothing to do with it. I think Missouri has performed well on defense the last couple of years without guys who would be considered elite recruits. Coaching is a part of it and I think they have done a  great job with what they have. We certainly need some of that.

Lastly, it ain’t so easy to play defense these days with the new-fangled offenses and such. For you veteran fans like me, an Iron Bowl with a 55-44 final score is absolute blasphemy.  Bear Bryant probably turned over in his grave last week. Oh, and that was our former DC, Ellis Johnson, who gave up, or was blamed for giving up, the 55.

All this being said, do I want Will Muschamp on the sidelines running the D next year?  Damn straight I do. I hope he can coach up our guys and get us better on D.  With the guys we have returning and the talent coming in (if we keep it), the potential is there. Plus, the perception of long-term stability with Muschamp as the possible next head coach at USC can do nothing but help.

But Coach Boom knows the above described recruiting landscape a lot better than I do.  So color me skeptical until we see him announced in Columbia.

If he doesn’t come, don’t be too surprised if Coach Ward is running the D again next year.

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6 Responses to The Gamecock Defense – A Reality Check

  1. wepdiggy says:

    Many of your points are valid. There certainly was a talent drop-off this year. And offenses are better than they used to be.

    That said, coaches who work hard in recruiting can A) Pull elite players from all over the country (see our neighbors to the north) and B) Evaluate players with the potential to be elite that may have been passed over by the “super powers” and coach them up to reach that potential. Our coaches did neither of those things, and Ward is the leader of those coaches.

    Secondly, while talent was lacking in certain areas, it doesn’t take a football genius to solve some of the issues we had on defense with coaching. Two primary examples come to mind: The wild cat dive play UK beat us with the entire 4th quarter (you stack the middle. If they beat you over the top, then they beat you over the top, but make them prove they can do it), and the jet sweep Clemson ran for 817 yards (or whatever the number was). The jet sweet in particular drove me mad. Clemson was pulling the play-side guard away from the play, which in turn made our Will LB read a play to the other side and run himself out of the play. The first time that worked, you write it off as a loss, but you make an adjustment. But Ward didn’t. The WLB took himself out of the play EVERY TIME because a coach didn’t tell Walton, “Hey son, we’re not going to read the pulling guard anymore. I want you to read the jet motion.” That one adjustment gets a linebacker over in space, and now David Johnson isn’t caught on an island by himself, and can turn the play back in to his linebacker. Now maybe theirs still beat ours, but in this instance, ours didn’t have a chance because the coaches never put them in a position to succeed.

    So yes, you’re right. Not all of the issues are coaching issues. But many of them were. You don’t end up ranked 90th in overall defense without an all-around failure, and this year, we saw an all-around failure.

  2. Kitster says:

    All valid points. But shouldn’t there be a reasonable expectation of even the most mediocre of player getting slightly better as a season wears on? I don’t think we saw that this season. The same mistakes were made during Game 12 as were made in Game 1. Bad tackling, bad recognition, bad angles, etc. I agree that the talent on Defense is considerably less than in recent years – but I expect through an entire season of coaching that the defense gets better (even if it is just a little bit). I did not see that at all out of this squad in 2014.

  3. whammy troll says:

    I don’t know what you guys watched but our guys just couldn’t or wouldn’t tackle. That’s not a question of recruiting elite players or not. They clearly knew how to tackle before arriving here but we weren’t able to get them to do it. Too many times they just threw their bodies at the oncoming offensive player never trying to wrap him up. That’s a coaching issue boys

  4. gman says:

    Another thing: did anybody else notice that Alabama game up more points to Auburn (44) playing at home, than we did to Auburn (42) playing on the road? Just thought this was interesting considering that Saban and Smart are supposed to be the best defensive coaches in the game today. Oh, and I think uber talented players probably tackle better than lesser talented players. For example, they might get there a split second faster. There’s a fine line. The difference between a bad defense and a good defense is not that much. Lose a couple of key guys and your good D is suddenly a bad D. Believe it or not, but in the SEC playing at this very high level, you can be very close to being good but still get killed. Just sayin.

    • wepdiggy says:

      Aye, but Alabama held Auburn scoreless on 5 drives (not including Auburn’s possession to end the first half), and limited them to a FG on 4 other drives. Against us, Auburn only had 8 possessions. We held them scoreless on 2 of them, and gave up a TD on the other 6. The total points stat is misleading, as Alabama scored much more, and quicker than we did.

  5. It seems that high school stars want to play defense for a team that will put them into the NFL. South Carolina has done this in the past but this year, we looked horrible in our play calling. Blitz packages were gone. We usually would rush only three. We got very little penetration into the backfield. We looked lost at times. We were consistently bad in the middle of the field. We gave up too many 3rd down conversions. It was just a bad year and we seemed to go from week to week where we didn’t know what defense we would run to what could we stop and not stop. The Clemson game tells it all.

    As far as recruiting goes. It is going to be an uphill battle always at South Carolina. We don’t have the traditions of Alabama and Auburn despite our state being similar to theirs. Clemson appears to be out in front again and we tend to lag behind them. I remember how hard recruiting seemed to be in the 1990’s when Clemson, Tennessee, UGA, FSU, and Florida seemed to pound us in recruiting and it showed on the field. Spurrier won at South Carolina by beating Clemson consistently and he out recruited them. He beat UGA, Florida, Alabama, and Tennessee on the field to show what we had here. This worked. But I fear that Spurrier has reached the end of his coaching days and our recruiting is taking a hit.

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