Notebook: Johnson wraps spring

While yet another spring practice is almost in the books for South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier and his staff, there is still work to be done. And according to assistant head coach in charge of defense Ellis Johnson, a great deal of that work will have to come on the defensive side of the ball if USC hopes to compete for the SEC championship this fall.

Despite getting to Atlanta and playing for the SEC title last season, USC's defense struggled at times, especially in an experienced secondary. After shuffling some players around this spring, Ellis Johnson and Lorenzo Ward have been looking for improvement in their overall defense as well as defending the pass.

But with many experienced players closely guarding injuries and missing time this spring, Johnson said he has not yet seen the improvement he wants from his young guys.

"It was about like our other springs have been," said Johnson. "You know we tried to work a lot of young players. I still have very, very big concerns about young defensive tackles and the secondary. We're making a little progress here and there and I think probably if we went back and looked at that first tape, we'd feel little bit better about the progress they've made. But we're a long way from getting to Atlanta and winning this conference."

However, there is still time before the season kicks off in the fall, and Johnson said he is looking for improvement from a lot of his young players over summer workouts.

"The youth back there, they're going to have to make tremendous strides over the summer. I think those young defensive tackles are going to be a big key to us as far as depth, and quality of depth up front. That being said I think at linebacker we're very average, blue collar at best. But a lot of guys out, so to try to evaluate this as a unit or a team I don't know how you do it. I've told you that since day one, I don't know how you evaluate it when you don't play all your players. But the biggest objective we had coming into the spring was to develop those young players and frankly I think we've got a long way to go."

Secondary looks to become strength again

With the Gamecocks returning the likes of Stephon Gilmore, Devonte Holloman, Akeeme Auguste, and Chris Culliver in the secondary last year, it is not surprising that unit was looked to as a strength of the team.

But the defensive backfield would become a hindrance to the team as they struggled in losses to Kentucky and Arkansas in the regular season, as well as the SEC Championship game and Chick-Fil-A Bowl.

"I do see some improvement I think fundamentally, technique, some of those things," said Johnson. "We're going to have to work more man-to-man technique in practice if we're going to play it in a game, period. And just too many missed assignments. Some of them just not getting the big picture. But again now, these guys, a lot of them just walked in here in January from high school. One guy just walked in here in January from prep school and we have two other redshirt freshmen."

Coach Johnson has been pleased with the emergence of seasoned but somewhat inexperienced players like Jimmy Legree but also said there are some frustrations as the young players go through the ropes and try to adjust to SEC level competition.

"Jimmy Legree I think made some progress this spring," added Johnson. "Corey Addison has basically not done anything with that hamstring. So that was a big disappointment in the development of the big picture right there. But all that being said, young players are young players and they're going to make mistakes. And like I said, we've probably made more improvement than I've realized because you see it on a day to day basis but when I look at the big picture I think we're a long, long way from being a quality defense."

Legree led the defense with two interceptions in the Garnet & Black game.

Holloman's move

One player who has moved out of the secondary and up to the SPUR linebacker position is Devonte Holloman, a highly touted prospect who has been playing pretty much from day one in Columbia. Holloman, who was one of the top linebacker prospects in America coming out of high school, has been moved closer to the line in order to take advantage of both his physical play and experience at the position.

With his move down, Holloman will no longer be making calls and setting alignment for the secondary, a part of the defense that Johnson says will have to get better without him.

"If I had to move him today I wouldn't move him back (to safety)," said Johnson. "His next move is not going to be back to boundary safety. I don't think that's an answer. He's played back there for us for two years out of position. Probably as far as quarterbacking the secondary, he was doing a better job of that than anybody we had. That's what we're missing back there, we don't have anybody back there that's making the right decisions and getting everybody else lined up."

One player who has raised even more eyebrows this spring has been DJ Swearinger, a junior from Greenwood, SC, who won the Joe Morrison defensive player of the spring award.

"DJ (Swearinger) is going to have to step up," added Johnson. "He's had a great spring as far as playmaking, he's going to have to step up if we're going to make young people play around him and right now it's not what we're getting. Last year Devonte was telling everybody else what to do, and frankly he got out of position a couple of times because of that. He's occupied with trying to check coverages and telling somebody where they need to be and all that. We do miss that back there, we miss his presence and some of those things. But that's not where he needs to play and the longer I've seen him at the SPUR linebacker, the better off I think we are playing him up around the box. We need to blitz him more rather than having him back there covering deep zone."

Holloman had one interception in the spring game.

Defensive Line building depth

An area that won't face quite as many concerns as the secondary is the defensive line, with several starters returning and key newcomers expected to make big impacts.

"I really think that's a different picture than the secondary," said Johnson. "You've got Travian Robertson, Jerideau's had a good spring, Devin Taylor (but) he didn't get to go any today. You put those guys back out there and all of a sudden we don't have problems up there. I don't know if we have the kind of quality depth you've got to have to win an SEC."

Johnson said he has heard talk that USC and his defense are ready to win the title in Atlanta, but feels like his team still has to put in a lot of work to realistically get there.

"I keep hearing everybody talk about we've arrived now, we're going to challenge for an SEC championship, (but) we don't have the quality of depth on this football team right now to make that statement," noted Johnson. "I think it's a reach at best to say we've arrived at that point because it's so grinding and grueling to get through this conference with the same eleven players. We know those two young ones can play and their improvement is very, very sporadic. Kelcy Quarles and JT Surratt have made some great improvements over the spring but we'll have to see how they do over the summer."

Shaq on his way back

Despite last season's historic success on the field, perhaps the biggest disappointment of the season was the absence of middle linebacker Shaq Wilson, who played in the first Auburn game before accepting that a hamstring injury would end his season.

The coaching staff has approached him with caution over the course of spring practice, but Johnson said the goal continues to be having him ready for the first game.

"Shaq's hamstring has been fine," said Johnson. "Let's don't jinx it. We have really been overly cautious. He's probably been anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five snaps a practice and in some practices he's been held out. I would say that he probably ended up playing twelve plays (in the spring game.) That's just a guess"

Johnson also said that he had his graduate assistant move Wilson around to Will linebacker a bit in the spring game, but that was just to get some other guys a chance to crack the playing rotation.

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