Defense preparing for tough SEC battle

The 12th-ranked South Carolina Gamecock football team began preparations on Monday night for their trip to the Plains this Saturday to take on the 17th-ranked Auburn Tigers in another key SEC battle. The big news coming out of practice was the return of linebacker Shaq Wilson to the practice fields.

Wilson entered the practice fields Monday night wearing a yellow jersey, but left with a white jersey. Wilson is officially back. Wilson did not practice full speed Monday, but is expected to on Tuesday.

"We hope we are," Defensive Coordinator Lorenzo Ward said after practice. "They ran him around today and he said he felt well and he's ready to practice so he'll practice tomorrow and we'll see how he does."

Ward was pleased with the overall effort of his defense, especially the rush defense that is currently ranked #1 in the SEC at just under 60 yards per game. One of the keys has been the play of Travian Robertson up the middle, the 6'4 293-pound Junior. Robertson has nine tackles on the season, four of them for loss, and two sacks. All but one tackle has come in the last two games.

"Travian has performed really, really well the last two weeks - not that he didn't against Southern Miss, but he played really well against Georgia and he played great on this past Saturday," Ward said. "He's been physical. He's dominating the line of scrimmage - no matter if he lines up on the center, guard, or tackle - he's dominating the guy he's lined up against."

Meanwhile, the pass defense has been a sore spot so far. The Gamecocks are last in the SEC in pass defense, giving up just under 268 yards per game. That is a stark contrast from a secondary that only gave up 163 yards in the air per game last season. With a secondary that returned so much talent, the reason could be as simple as all three opponents playing from behind the entire game and having to throw the ball. Ward believes that tackling could improve those numbers a lot.

"I thought we did some good things," Ward said. "But I also thought that we're still making some mental mistakes in the perimeter that's allowing them to have big plays and that's why we're last in the league in pass defense. Until we stop giving up big plays - we call it hidden yardage where if we tackle the ball carrier after he catches the ball the yards after catch is not going to be as big, but when they can break tackles and make big plays we're not going to be as good as we wanna be."

This week the Gamecocks hit the road for the first time this season and will be greeted by a hostile crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Spurs/SS coach and Special Teams coordinator Shane Beamer thinks this team is ready for the challenge.

"I think our guys are excited," Beamer said. "It's the first road game. We talked to them today about to be a great SEC team you have to go and win on the road and that's our mindset. Obviously we're playing a great opponent in Auburn and it'll be a great atmosphere. I know it's kinda cliche but that's why you come to South Carolina - that's why you come to play in the SEC - is to play games like this. Our guys are excited to go over there and play."

Beamer, once a coach at Mississippi State, has that previous experience of battling with Auburn every year and going into that stadium every other year. While it is a big thing to deal with, Beamer says you can't over-emphasize it.

"I don't think you make it bigger than it is," Beamer said. "Obviously noise is going to be an issue and it's gonna be different than it was the last three weeks when we played at home and it's been loud when we've been on defense and some-what quiet when we're on offense. We've played in tough environments before - obviously we've got guys like a Marcus Lattimore and guys that are making their first trip on the road - but we got a lot of guys that have played in a lot of hostile environments before. All we need to focus on is going and playing well."

Ward says the thing you've got to be prepared for when facing the Auburn offense is the big play. If you want to find out why, just look towards the upstate.

"Auburn is a big-play team," Ward said. "One of the concerns we have is that they nickel and dime you until they hit you with a big play. Even in that ball game against Clemson, Clemson was leading 17-0 and the next thing you know they give up a stutter-and-go and then they hit them again on a stop-and-go. If we eliminate the big plays I feel good about our chances to win the ball game. If we don't then it could be a long night for us."

One of the biggest keys for the Gamecock defense is Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. Newton is 6'6 and is the epitome of dual-threat. Gamecock linebacker Rodney Paulk is impressed with what he's seen on film out of Newton.

"He's a great quarterback," Paulk said. "He's big, he's strong, he's physical, he's a true quarterback so we've really gotta buckle down on defense and wrap-up, make tackles - correct our missed assignments the previous three games."

Paulk says it's different preparing for a dual-threat quarterback. Even on a pass play you have to be prepared for him to take off and run.

"It's tough playing a dual-threat quarterback," Paulk said. "You gotta stay disciplined on defense - read with your eyes. We should be alright this Saturday though."

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