NOTEBOOK: Defense went through 'Football 101'

A new football season is right around the corner and with that comes new strengths and new question marks. South Carolina assistant head coach in charge of the defense Ellis Johnson sat down and discusses a number of those topics after the Steve Spurrier media golf tournament Wednesday.

Late last season South Carolina defensive headman Ellis Johnson was asked what was the biggest problem his defense had all season long? At the time, Johnson said it boiled down to one main thing. And he and his defensive staff are taking major steps to fix it.

"Our football players do not play smart," Johnson said was the biggest issue last season. "It doesn't matter if you're a smart guy, if you don't play smart. Mental mistakes, formation recognition, what comes off of what formation -- things like that -- I don't know how many students of the game we really have. We weren't as old as I think everybody thought we were."

Many South Carolina fans will immediately remember the busted coverages in the secondary. While those were certainly harmful, Johnson said that they didn't have more busted coverages in the secondary than at other positions, those were just more obvious.

"It's just like when the ball rolls through the second baseman's legs, you've got a double," Johnson said to illustrate his point. "If the ball rolls through the left fielder's legs, you might have an inside-the-park homer."

Whether the mistakes led to doubles or homers, Johnson says he can understand when a player is confused by something they didn't go over in practice. But that wasn't always the case last year.

"Our kids effort since I've been here has been tremendous," he says. "The attitude has been good. I think we've tried to play physical. The thing that I think jumped out last year, there were some inconsistencies that just were unacceptable.

"Some of our mistakes were really unexplainable."

Which meant going back to the basics this spring.

Johnson believes that some of his players are great athletes that may have been asked to play multiple positions in high school to the point that they never truly were taught the game.

Rather than just breaking down an opposing team's offense by its characteristics, he wants his players to make it a point to actually learn about offense and its basics, to make them better overall defenders.

"We've tried real hard to approach -- There's nothing you can do in the summer -- but we spent a lot of time in the spring, not only in spring practice, but what we call Football 101 -- we can get them a couple of hours a week -- we really tried to go back and teach them about football instead of trying to teach them all the Xs and Os."

Johnson: Let Clowney learn at his rate

Johnson is excited as anyone to see what the former No. 1 high school prospect in the country is going to do when he puts on a garnet and black jersey.

But the veteran coach also wants to try and keep some of the pressure off his prized former five-star recruit.

"Physically, I think his limits are unpredictable -- he's that talented," Johnson said. "Everybody needs to slow down a little bit until he learns what he's doing and we know where he's going to fit in."

Clowney has already put on 15 pounds since arrive in Columbia for Summer II, a feat Johnson has trouble believing as much as strength coach Craig Fitzgerald has run the players this summer.

All of the physical characteristics are there. But that doesn't mean Devin Taylor and Melvin Ingram, who are currently listed as starters at defensive end, are going to be easy to beat out.

"We've got two pretty good defensive ends, and one is the leader in tackles-for-loss and one is the leading sacks guy, and they're older kids too, and they're not going down (easily). And that's going to make Jadeveon better."

In fact, Johnson listed Taylor as one of the four or five players who had already solidified his spot unless something unforeseen happens. And he singled out Ingram as being close to that status, too.

"What can he do? There's no telling," Johnson said of Clowney's ability. "When will he do it? We just need to let it take its own course."

Questions in the secondary

It was the theme of spring practice and it remains the theme of preseason practice: who steps up in the secondary?

With Stephon Gilmore in one cornerback spot. And Akeem Auguste and C.C. Whitlock at the other, those positions shouldn't be a concern.

The main focus has become solidifying the safety positions -- specifically finding a starter at free safety and backups at both positions.

At this point, the only thing that seems certain is that junior D.J. Swearinger will be the starting boundary safety. Johnson and secondary coach Lorenzo Ward like to "double teach" their safeties at both positions, but Johnson says Swearinger has been much more comfortable when he only has to learn one spot. They've decided that boundary is that spot.

"D.J. I think is in place," Johnson says. "Right now I think he's in the right spot and I don't want to move him."

But the starting free safety and reserves at both spots are yet to be determined.

Redshirt sophomore Jimmy Legree moved to the position for the final week of spring practice after having a breakout offseason at cornerback. Freshmen Sheldon Royster and Brison Williams are also currently in the mix. Royster was highly recruited and a four-star prospect while Williams has the advantage of spending a semester at Fork Union Military Academy and going through spring practice.

"First order of business," Johnson says, "is to put Jimmy Legree back out there and see if those last four days are going to be as good as the next, find out where Royster is [and] see if Brison is going to continue to make the progress he made in the spring."

While the least experienced, Royster may be the most talented of the group.

"I don't think it is at all," said Johnson, asked if it was too much to put on a freshman. "You don't want to count on that to be your answer. But I certainly wouldn't rule out him being a player who makes himself stick out pretty soon."

Freshman Kadetrix Marcus is currently listed as a cornerback but could be another option if those three aren't able to take hold of the position.

"Kadetrix Marcus had an outstanding summer. He and Swearinger and Stephon were singled out as being leaders on the whole thing. That's a compliment to a freshman."

Auguste, who played the position last season but had consistency issues, is not in the conversation after moving back to cornerback this spring. Auguste is more comfortable there, Johnson says.

A last resort would be to move DeVonte Holloman back to a safety position. Holloman has played his first two seasons at South Carolina at the boundary safety position, but in the spring moved to SPUR, where Johnson believes he's a better fit.

To complicate matters, Steve Spurrier said Thursday that Holloman is likely to miss the first game of the season after being charged with a DUI in June.

"I don't want to put that out there as any kind of a plan," Johnson said of moving him back. "It would be more of a fallback."

Johnson wants to go at least two weeks and scrimmage a couple of times before considering that option. In his effort to keep Swearinger at boundary, even if it comes to that, Holloman would actually play the free safety position, according to Johnson.

"Right now, penciled in on that field safety is Jimmy Legree, Brison and Royster. And I want to see those guys compete and I hope that solves itself.

"There's a good bunch back there. The competition, I think, will be good."

Corey Addison and Sharrod Golighly are currently listed as the backups to Swearinger at boundary.

Plenty of competition at DT

One position Johnson doesn't seem worried about is defensive tackle. He's already got sixth-year senior Travian Robertson as his definite starter at one spot. And he's loving the competition that will take place to fill in the other and the reserve roles.

Former JUCO transfer Byron Jerideau is currently listed as a direct backup to Robertson, but after a great offseason is firmly in the mix in the race to start alongside him.

"Everything that we've gotten back from the feedback from the strength coaches is that he's made unbelievable progress," Johnson says. "He's cut his weight, his body fat [and] his agility has come along with that."

The 6-foot-1 Jerideau was over 350 pounds at times last season but is now listed at 319. Johnson says Jerideau is even more comfortable in his football stance now days.

"Everything -- his speed, his agility, his endurance, his technique and his fundamentals -- has all come along. It's been a gradual process but he's continued it this summer, and we're real anxious to see how it transitions into the preseason."

Former Greenwood HS standout Kelcy Quarles will also be in the mix.

"Kelcy was behind knowledge-wise and he struggled a little bit early" in the spring, Johnson said. "But he may be the most talented of the whole bunch, no question. He hasn't really reached his physical limits."

Junior Aldrick Fordham is undersized at 6-foot-3, 274 pounds, but is currently listed as the starter alongside Robertson.

"He's as good a football player as we have (at DT), just fundamentals and techniques and knowing how to play the game," Johnson says. "He's a smart football player."

Several other freshmen will also get looks.

"Deon Green, we had high hopes for him. They're worried about his knee, they're going to take it over and look at it to see if we need to hold him or what can we do. You've got Gerald Dixon, Jr. -- I think he'll mix it up with Phillip Dukes."

There's enough talent that Johnson isn't too worried about the position.

"There's plenty of competition in there, and that's what I like. When you've got competition, everything will work itself out. That's what brings out the best in a player."

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