South Carolina Assistant Head Coach Ellis Johnson met with the media following Thursday's final practice before taking the weekend off to get some rest and healing before eight straight weeks of football. The Gamecocks begin that stretch with the #1 team in the country, Alabama. Some of the healing is from the normal grind of college football, but there are two in particular that are on the minds of Gamecock coaches; the concussion of DeVonte Holloman and the hamstring injury of Shaq Wilson. The latter is much more worrisome and has once again opened up the possibility of a medical redshirt.
"His ham's(hamstring) bothering him again," Johnson said of Wilson. "I have no idea (if he'll play against Alabama). It's not good. It'll be day-to-day."
Wilson, the leading tackler from a year ago and Johnson's "quarterback" of the defense, returned to the line-up against Auburn after injuring his hamstring during the second practice of the year. Wilson was in the starting line-up and had a great game. Wilson ended the game with seven tackles and two fumble recoveries. Potentially being without Wilson is critical for the Gamecocks with the power running game that Alabama brings with the defending Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and back-up Trent Richardson.
"He's (Ingram) obviously a great back, but the back-up (Richardson) can start for about anyone in the conference," Johnson said.
In last year's game, the Tide wore down the Carolina defense which allowed Ingram to run wild late in the game. Ingram ran for 248 yards on 24 carries and a late touchdown to seal Alabama's 20-6 victory. Richardson, who was still somewhat unproven at that point, carried the ball five times for 21 yards as the Tide rushed for 302 as a team. They return most of their offensive line, who Johnson says is even better this year.
"They have two different linemen in their front five than were there last year and, actually, they're better athletically than they were last year up front in my opinion," Johnson said. "Just about every other player is still in that line-up and you know they're better than they were last year. It's a very imposing group that functions well; they play well, it's fundamentals, it's everything. They've got talent and they back it up with good physical play and good fundamentals."
In order for the Gamecock defense to stop the Tide rushing attack, they will have to match Alabama physically and fundamentally, something they struggled with last week against Auburn.
"Absolutely," Johnson said of not playing well fundamentally against the Tigers. "When you look back that's always when you give up a ton of yardage. When you're not in the right place it's mental, it's physical, it's fundamental, it's technique. It's not a bunch of magic drawings on the board. There's no solution for if you don't play good fundamental football and get in position to make plays and finish, that's what you get. Alabama's gonna make you do that.
"It's a totally different style," Johnson continued. "Auburn was a lot of finesse and trickery and formations and a little bit of the option element and the speed of it and so forth. They did a very good job with it and Alabama's just as good with what they do."
Unlike last year, Alabama doesn't just pound it down your throat all day. They've made an effort to have more of a passing game with quarterback Greg McElroy. McElory, who was only 10-for-20 for 92 yards with two interceptions in last year's match-up with the Gamecocks, is a year older and a year better according to Johnson.
"They spread it out more now than they used to, and I think they've got a lot more confidence in their quarterback this year," Johnson said. "They know he's capable of doing those things and I think they're spreading it out a little bit more and letting him throw the ball down-field a little bit more. They're trying to find that balance that everyone needs to try and win the whole thing."
The Gamecock secondary will be challenged by the Tide receivers, led by Julio Jones. Not only do they catch the ball well, Johnson believes they may be even better at blocking.
"I don't think there's any question that the strength of their offense is being able to physically run the football, and their receivers are even a part of that," Johnson said. "You know your offensive line's good when you can run it that way, you know those running backs are good, but their receivers are a huge key to the way they run the ball. They get a lot of down-field blocks that turn those 6-yarders into 26-yarders, but at the same time they have a very talented receiver core and they've all got some experience now."
The Gamecock secondary could potentially be without a starter as strong safety DeVonte Holloman is still recovering from a concussion he suffered early in the second half against Auburn. Johnson said that while he does still have some symptoms of the concussion, they feel very confident about him returning next week against the Tide.
D.J. Swearinger, who has been battling with Akeem Auguste at free safety, had to move over to Holloman's position and that hurt the Gamecock defense.
"The problem we have is with DeVonte out we don't have the luxury of saying we're gonna move him (Swearinger to free safety)," Johnson said. "It's a three-way rotation there right now and we lost DeVonte I guess the very beginning of the third quarter, and DJ had not practiced much at that position during the week. He was mostly at free safety and a dime linebacker. When he (Holloman) went out it hurt us. A lot of mistakes were made on that side."
The Gamecocks will be looking to return back to form defensively after last week's humiliating effort on the Plains. Gamecock Defensive Coordinator Lorenzo Ward said that the team needed to get back to the basics and do the things that has made the defense one of the best in the league. Johnson echoed Ward's sentiments, saying that the defense needed to get back to the fundamentals.
"He's referring to the fundamentals of doing things," Johnson said. "Disguise coverages, opportunities where our defensive backs could have pressed receivers and gotten up and playing physical technique on them who seem hesitant or confused and unsure of themselves. A couple of times the fast pace of the other offense can make you line up and be prepared for the snap and they can get a look at you. So you have to do a good job of having poise and not showing what you're gonna be playing. I think as the game wore on we didn't do a good job of that and I'm sure that's what he's probably referring to. We just got away from what we've done so well as far as fundamentals, disguising coverages, tackling in the open field, making plays on the football in the air, and all those things."
Johnson said the team and coaches must learn from the mistakes and move on.
"Anytime you have a bad performance you always have to move forward," Johnson said. "The first day we did not, but the second day we started on Alabama and tried to get extra preparation on them Wednesday and today. It's always, to me, about moving ahead. If you don't learn from mistakes you don't get better. So you don't ignore them, you don't let them go, but if you sit there and dwell on a loss it's gonna beat you again."
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