USC Defense Prepares For Potent Offense

South Carolina assistant head coach Ellis Johnson met with the media following Thursday's practice to discuss the secondary issues and the potent Razorback offense.

Entering the 2010 season, the Arkansas-South Carolina match-up would pit the league's best passing attack against the league's best secondary. That is no longer the case. The Razorbacks will be without leading receiver Greg Childs and possibly #2 receiver Joe Adams missing as well, Ryan Mallett could be without his top two targets. On the other side, you have a struggling Gamecock secondary searching for answers and now without one of its starters in senior Chris Culliver.

"It's huge," Gamecock Assistant Head Coach Ellis Johnson said. "He's a good cover-corner with bigger receivers. He had a bad game last week, and I didn't even know it but he tore that muscle in the first quarter and couldn't run full speed. The other kids don't have the size or the range that he does, and we're down to about six guys back there that we feel like are ready to play. So it becomes a depth problem too."

Though Mallett may be without his top two targets, there's still a plethora of weapons at his disposal. There are six other Razorbacks that have at least 100 yards receiving this season and other receivers have scored 12 touchdowns. Johnson says Mallett and the receivers are great players in a great system.

"Mallett is a really good player, but he's just a key ingredient in a group of kids that fit what (Bobby) Petrino likes to do," Johnson said. "He loves to stretch the field - vertically and horizontally - and open up his running game. When you've got the kind of speed they have in the wide receiver core, and the tight end could be the best receiving tight end we've seen this year, and he also uses his backs out of the backfield on the deep routes. He's been a little inaccurate sometimes on the short throws and the crossing routes, but it's just so much stretch and pressure on you all the time."

The loss of guys that have accounted for 76 receptions, 1,203 yards, and 10 touchdowns is going to be hard for the Razorbacks to replace, but the Razorbacks do have other weapons for quarterback Mallett to hit. Running back DJ Williams is Mallet's favorite receiver not named Childs or Adams. Williams has 32 catches on the season for 366 yards and a touchdown. Receiver Jarius Wright has the most receiving yardage of the other receivers with 425 yards on 25 receptions and two touchdowns. Running back Ronnie Wingo, Jr. will have to be a focus of the Gamecock defense inside the red zone as he is tied with Adams for second on the team in touchdown receptions with four.

"Nobody has stopped Arkansas," Johnson said. "Alabama did a great job late in the game of turning the ball over, but they gave up a bunch of passing yards and gave up a touchdown pass the second play of the game. Nobody has stopped Arkansas, and we're not going to stop Arkansas. We've got to manage it and keep it from being anything where it just blows the game out and hopefully get some turnovers. That's the key to him - getting some turnovers and getting off the field."

The Gamecocks, in an effort to shore up the pass defense struggles, have changed some things up a little bit in practice the last few weeks. Instead of spending the whole week of practice going up against the scout team, the Gamecock defense has spent some time with the Gamecock offense.

"What we've done over the last three weeks - we coaches have wanted to do it - we're doing a lot more good on good pass skill now during the week," Johnson said. "We've carved out anywhere from 8-to-12-to-15 minutes a day to go good on good (starters on starters). Our scout team this year is really not capable of duplicating anything close to what our opponents are doing in the run game or the pass game. I think some of our problems back there fundamentally has been the fact we haven't gotten routes daily that can get on you quicker, break your cushion, routes that can run by you, routes that break off quicker. I'm thinking it's made us a lot better."

Though the stats haven't necessarily indicated much of a change the last two games, Johnson has seen things getting progressively better.

"Our man coverage technique has improved, our zone awareness and speed has improved, and it's got to because it has not been good," Johnson said. "I'm going to say right along with that statement that all of our problems in the passing game hasn't been in the secondary, but the thing that has been the most glaring is that our technique, fundamentals, and making plays on the ball has been inconsistent."

As has been the case the last few weeks, the Gamecocks will play more man coverage, but will have to mix it well if they hope to contain the potent Razorback offense that averages 35 points a game and 487 yards of offense.

"We've got to mix," Johnson said. "We've got to be able to do it all - you have to able to blitz, have to be able to defend, got to play zone, got to play man. I think the one mistake you would make against these guys is if you tried to lay it all on one element."

The Gamecocks got off to a good start on it's "Orange Crush" portion of the schedule last week in the 38-24 win over Tennessee, but it's only going to get tougher starting this week.

"Coach always talks about that (late season struggles)," Johnson said. "It's kind of been a motto of the season - second half of the season and second half of the ball games. If you look at our schedule a lot of times it's been backloaded. When you play the Arkansas', the Florida's, the Tennessee's, the Clemson's - all in the last half of the season - it's tougher to find those wins."

One thing is for certain; if the Gamecocks hope to be in the ball game in the fourth quarter Saturday and hope to keep their goal of an undefeated season intact, the Gamecock secondary has to play its best game of the season, something which it is very capable of doing.

"I hope so," Johnson said. "I don't think you're going to know that until Saturday."

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