Will Muschamp, who personally coaches the secondary, made it clear the moment he first saw the group.
While South Carolina’s defensive backs are some of the most veteran players on the team, they’re not nearly the caliber of talent needed to compete in the SEC. Nobody who’s watched the Gamecocks’ secondary the past two years was surprised to hear Muschamp say it.
The players were a little surprised, but understood.
“He’s the coach, so if that’s what he thinks, that’s how it goes,” junior cornerback Chris Lammons said. “Nobody wants to hear that they’re not where they’re supposed to be. But it’s constructive criticism, and you’ve got to perform, no matter what.”
The straight numbers from 2014 and 2015 aren’t that bad. The Gamecocks finished 10th in the SEC in pass defense (220.5 yards per game) under Lorenzo Ward and improved to ninth (212.4) under Jon Hoke. They had 11 interceptions in 2014 and 12 in 2015.
Yet the games were sometimes excruciating. USC’s DBs left the middle of the field wide open and often took bad routes to the receivers. When they got there, they discovered that arm-tackling doesn’t work.
It’s a two-way street with the secondary because it depends on the pass-rush. There could be four Deion Sanders in the backfield but with nobody to pressure the quarterback, somebody’s going to get open. USC’s drastic downturn in sacks (34 over the past two years, compared to 25 in 2013 alone) played a part in the struggles.
But much of it was the scheme, particularly last year. Jon Hoke wanted to limit the big play, so he camped his receivers far off the line and dared opponents to throw to the middle, where ball-hawking linebacker Skai Moore waited. That paid off in the season-opener against North Carolina.
The other 11 games …
“That’s what everybody tried to stay away from, the big play. But we gave up everything else,” junior D.J. Smith said. “They weren’t putting us in position to make plays. The defense that coach Muschamp brings, the plays are there to be made.”
When quarterbacks such as Greyson Lambert and Drew Lock were setting pass completion records against USC and Hoke still refused to try anything different, opponents knew exactly how to attack the Gamecocks. The pass-rush improved from 2014 but not enough to severely impact the secondary’s performance; after all, if a quarterback had at least two seconds to throw to the middle and defenders were 15 yards off the ball, how hard could it be?
Muschamp has vowed a turnaround, and he has proven that he won’t sit idly by when one system isn’t working. The problem is this year, the Gamecocks are wafer-thin in secondary depth and lost their most experienced player three days before the opener.
When Rico McWilliams (18 starts) quit football, Jordan Diggs (12) and Lammons (11) took over as DBs with the most starts. All the secondary had several dozen reps and switched positions in camp, but now that it’s game week, it’s time to see what stuck.
And in the first game, Muschamp may find out what’s worked in practice isn’t translating.
“We’re a bump football team. That’s always been our style of play,” defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson said. “We’re going to be, I imagine, somewhere around 60 to 70 percent bump man-to-man, doing different things like that, with the ability to play zone and change up the looks.”
Muschamp said he likes the front seven and it has decent depth. If the pass-rush can be developed, perhaps the secondary won’t have to be called on as much. “Everybody’s really learning every position, so it’s really making us a better team,” sophomore Rashad Fenton said.
The entire group has channeled Muschamp’s enthusiasm, but it’s easy to be excited when there aren’t any points on the board. While Vanderbilt is expected to lean on tailback Ralph Webb on Thursday, the USC secondary knows it will get a few chances to nab a pass.
And it should be in better positions to do so.
“I feel like this year is more aggressive, more up-tempo,” senior Chaz Elder said. “We got a lot of work to do, but I feel we’ll be all right.”
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USC’s DB depth chart
CB – RASHAD FENTON
S – D.J. SMITH (Jordan Diggs)
S – CHAZ ELDER (Steven Montac)
CB – CHRIS LAMMONS (Jamarcus King)
N – JORDAN DIGGS (Rashad Fenton)