Gamecocks adjusting to coaching changes

Offensive line coach Shawn Elliott and newly-appointed defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward spoke at Saturday's press conference at the Capital One Bowl. The coaches discussed the adjustments to the losses of running back coach Jay Graham and assistant head coach Ellis Johnson, as well as Monday's match-up with Nebraska.

Bowl week is always a fun time for players and coaches alike. Filled with events, trips, and memorabilia, it is a week that players will remember for a lifetime. Having your bowl game in Orlando, Florida is a little bit sweeter than most bowls for both South Carolina and Nebraska.

The Gamecock football team has enjoyed trips to Universal Studios, Sea World, Disney World, and a shopping spree. Two days from now all of that will be forgotten. It will be all about one thing; winning the Capital One Bowl and getting that eleventh win for the first time in program history.

"We've come down here for a purpose to win a football game, but we've had a little excitement in between practices, but we've worked hard," offensive line coach Shawn Elliott said in Saturday's press conference.

South Carolina held its final practice Saturday morning, its thirteenth since the season finale against Clemson. It was a long layoff and a lot of practicing with no game, but it will be beneficial for all who will return in 2012.

"The blessing of being in a bowl game, as most head coaches would tell you, is that you don't use all your time to prepare for Nebraska or whoever you're playing in that particular bowl game," defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. "A lot of people use the time to make the younger players better and that's what we did early in the bowl preparation. When we got close to game week we really started to prepare 100%."

"We kind of go about it as a (normal) game week," Elliott said. "We utilize one week, week and a half but we don't overthink things. Our offense runs kind of the same thing whoever we're playing. It's all about out blocking and their tackling and getting our players in the best position possible to make plays. We're not going to go out and change a bunch of stuff. We just look to get our players fundamentally better those first two weeks of practice."

This bowl season will be anything but normal for both sides of the football. The Gamecocks will be entering the game without two of its now former coaches. Running back coach Jay Graham left to go to his Alma Mater, Tennessee, and assistant head coach Ellis Johnson took the head coaching job at Southern Miss.

"Of course you have to make some adjustments as far as the running game and protections and things like that," Elliott said. "I've kind of taken over the role with the (running) backs a little bit, but we have some quality (graduate assistants) that's stepped in and helped out a lot. We don't feel like we're going to miss a beat. We should be right on target."

"Defensively the biggest loss we're going to feel is on game day," Ward said. "I'm the guy that likes to be on the field. Being a coach short I'm going to be in the booth, so I won't have that opportunity to look the young men in the eyes and see how they are feeling during the ball game. I think you can look your players in the eyes and see if they're involved and excited to be there. We won't let it affect us. Coach (Jeep) Hunter will be down on the field and we'll still have the same guys that have been down there making adjustments other than myself being down there."

Since Elliott's arrival in Columbia, the Gamecock offense has changed its blocking schemes. It now uses the zone-read, something Elliott used as offensive line coach at FCS-power Appalachian State. Carolina uses it even more now with Connor Shaw at quarterback.

"In 2004 at Appalachian State we went through kind of a down year - I think we were 7-4 or something like that," Elliott said. "We just needed a spark in our offense up there. We decided to go to West Virginia for a few days with Coach Rodriguez and his staff, and implement a new offensive running game. Adding the quarterback run in any offense is something that is hard to defend - it's a numbers game. If you talk to anyone out there, 11 on 11 is a lot better than 10 on 11. So we wanted to run the quarterback more and we knew we had special athletes there so we said we were going to make some things happen with him. We don't do everything here at South Carolina like we did at Appalachian State, but we implemented the same running style and run the quarterback a little more than we did in the past here at Carolina."

Elliott has battled with numerous injuries from the time practice started to the end of the regular season. The most notable injury was the loss of senior tackle Kyle Nunn, who has missed the last eight games due to a back injury and blood clot in his leg. Nunn will attempt to play in the bowl game in hopes of showing NFL scouts that he has recovered from the injuries. In the Clemson game, Terrence Campbell suffered a leg injury and is still questionable for the bowl game.

"It's all part of the process," Elliott said. "Injuries happen, things occur each and every week to go out and play positions they're not completely comfortable with playing. With that being said, Terrence Campbell has a broken leg; at this point he may or may not be ready Monday. We may have to move Rokevious (Watkins) back in there at right guard and do some other shuffling around, but these guys are prepared to play each and every position up front. It's not like they come in and I specifically say ‘okay, you're going to be a right tackle and that's all you're going to focus on.' They play everything, from right guard to right tackle, to left guard to left tackle, so I feel very comfortable going into the game that we'll put together a group that is solid enough to go out there and be successful. "

The Gamecocks will be looking at nearly a mirror image across the field in the Cornhuskers. Behind quarterback Taylor Martinez, the Huskers rely on the run game quite a bit and use some zone-read. That may not be as much of a disadvantage for the Gamecocks as other Nebraska opponents since they see it every day in practice. Ward also saw it quite a bit when he coached at Virginia Tech when the Hokies had Michael Vick at quarterback. This week Ward has used speedy receiver Ace Sanders and redshirt quarterback Tanner McEvoy as a Martinez clone.

"We were fortunate enough at Virginia Tech to play against one every day. Of course he's playing on Sunday now, Michael Vick," Ward said. "If you play against that speed it helps you as an opponent of it. That's what we've tried to do a good job of this week; use some of the guys that could really make us miss in the open field because that's what we're going to get with the Nebraska quarterback. He's a young man that is tough, he loves to run the football and they don't throw it a lot. We know he's going to carry the football and we have to go out as a defense and understand that if we don't stop the quarterback we're not going to win the football game."

When you face a dual threat at quarterback like Martinez, who has thrown for nearly 2,000 yards and rushed for 837 yards, you don't change what you do, you just do what you do better when it is 11 on 11.

"You don't really change your scheme, but you have to be sound when you play a quarterback that can run," Ward said. "Any time the quarterback is a guy that can carry the football then you add an extra dimension to your offense, so you have to dedicate another man to stopping the run. We just have to do a good job in the perimeter, make sure we don't take bad angles, and then we have to tackle when we get there."

Martinez is not the only threat the Cornhuskers have in the backfield. Running back Rex Burkhead has rushed for 1268 yards, an average of 106 yards a game, and 15 touchdowns. The 5'11, 210 pound junior provides two threats; using his speed to run around you, or his strength to run over you.

"Rex is a tough young man," Ward said. "He likes to run the ball north and south. You do see him at times bounce it and he has the ability to make you miss in open field. He's kind of shifty, but he will also run over you. You see him sometimes lower his shoulder, especially against the DB's. We have to do a good job of trying to get him before he gets started. If we can do that we can have success, if we don't the longer the game goes the harder he runs."

The time for talk is nearly over. As 2011 draws to an end and 2012 begins in just a few hours, only one team will start the new year off right. Will Carolina beat Nebraska for the first time, win eleven games for the first, and break the ugly bowl losing streak?

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