Scanning The Cornerbacks

The Gamecocks have a new secondary coach and an inexperienced group of cornerbacks. Is this a recipe for success or failure? ...

Ron Cooper is the most important ingredient to this season's secondary hopes. Cooper, who has nine years of head coaching experience and coached the secondary for Lou Holtz at Notre Dame when the Fighting Irish won back-to-back New Year's Day Bowl games, begins his first season as head honcho of the defensive backs at South Carolina.

As a matter of fact, combined with Jonathan Joseph and Fred Bennett, along with Taqiy Muhammad and Ty Erving ... the Gamecocks are relatively nothing but new in the 2004 secondary.

"That's not always a bad thing," said Defensive Coordinator Rick Minter. "Sometimes it's a good thing to have new players coming in with a new coach because that way you don't have to unteach them anything - they are all starting from scratch with empty minds about the new system. In other words you don't have to ask them to forget things they may have learned from a previous position coach."

'Starting from scratch' is right. Dunta Robinson and DeAndre Eiland are gone to the NFL. And the 2003 season saw Fred Bennett receive more time at free safety and on special teams than he did at cornerback under the old staff's system. Jonathan Joseph was still in junior college, Ty Erving was a true freshman out of Batesburg-Leesville working mostly with the scout team and Taqiy Muhammad was a wide receiver ... for much of the season anyway.

It just does not get any less-experienced than that for any other group of cornerbacks in the conference that we can find.

Yet there is hope. Hope for a better secondary, a more productive group of cornerbacks ... here's why.

Cooper is an experienced and knowledgable corners coach who knows how to coach a secondary that helps overall defenses. For instance as the head coach at Alabama A&M, Cooper helped lead the Bulldogs to the 2000 championship game of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, with that team leading the nation in rushing defense and finishing eighth in total defense. During his stint at Louisville, his first Cardinal team in 1995 led the nation in turnovers forced, finished ninth nationally in scoring defense, 18th in total defense and 20th in rushing defense. His 1996 UL squad ranked fourth in the NCAA in both total and rushing defense. Cooper coached three All-Americas at Louisville, including defensive back Sam Madison, who stars with the Miami Dolphins and former Gamecock Arturo Freeman; offensive tackle Roman Oben, who stars for the 2003 Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers; and linebacker Tyrus McCloud, who was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens. And if all that is not good enough, Cooper is a graduate of Jacksonville State ... also known as "The Gamecocks."

Enough about Cooper - everyone should be satisfied that he has the bonafides to get the job done this season. More importantly he has the trust of his players based upon our observations. They believe in him, but only time will tell once they have been under the gun.

Jonathan Joseph is one of the more naturally gifted true corners the Gamecocks have signed in years. With South Carolina having placed more defensive backs in the NFL in the last five seasons than any other D-I program ... naming Joseph perhaps the most naturally gifted of the group is saying something. He deserves the early accolades that he is receiving. A natural 'cover corner,' Jonathan's major drawback at the moment is that he lacks certain hitting skills. "He's got to learn to be more physical," Cooper told us over the summer. "We want him to be a great cover man, and we think he will be, but in this league he is going to have to deliver blows and come up physical on run support. You cannot be one dimensional in this league and expect to excel. We want more than that from Jonathan and we believe he'll give it to us."

The good thing is that Joseph is fearless. He is not afraid to hit. In fact, he nursed a shoulder injury through spring and the first few weeks of summer that, at least according to him, 'slowed his hitting down' by a couple of notches.

If Joseph leans toward being a cover corner, Fred Bennett leans toward being the big hitter of the duo. Bennett has the size to man either safety position, but his athleticism and speed has allowed him to make the transition to the more demanding corner spot.

"I believe in myself, that's my big advantage," Bennett declared. "I know I can do this, I can run with anybody and I like to hit, that's my strength."

Do not underestimate Bennett's cover abilities, even though at 6-2, 190, he would be one of the larger cornerbacks in the league if not the country.

"Size is not a negative in Bennett's case," said Cooper. "He has good enough hips and he is athletic enough to run with smaller players. We have a lot of confidence in his ability. He is going to have to work hard over the summer and there will be some polishing necessary during summer practice, but we have every confidence in his ability to get the job done."

Taqiy Muhammad has corner experience, but not the kind most Gamecock like to remember. It seemed as if every time Muhammad took the field in 2003 as a corner ... he was burned?

"Not true," say Taqiy. "I mean I was back there a time or two and some mistakens were made, but there were a lot of things going on back there that led to a lot of confusion. Coach Cooper is going to clear some of that up. Especially where our assignments and responsibilities are concerned . We're going to get a lot more help from the safeties this year, sort of like in the past. I mean, I don't know exactly what happened last year but I think it had a lot to do with missed assignments - I was over on the other side of the line a lot last year so I am not exactly sure. Anyway, that's all in the past."

In the past indeed. At least most Gamecock fans will hope so. Without going into too much detail, the USC secondary gave up far too many yards through the air last season - especially in the season finally against Clemson. They were in fact, atrocious. A problem Cooper and Crew plan to remedy in the upcoming campaign.

Ty Erving is the final piece to the puzzle. The redshirt freshman saw limited action even in practice last season - instead working mostly on the scout team running other teams' defenses for the benefit of the Gamecocks' offense.

Gamecock fans should be very very apprehensive about the coming season where their cornerbacks are concerned. While extremely talented, and loaded with potential, they are grossly underexperienced and lacking in the ways of the SEC wars. Expect Vanderbilt to test them early - SC fans will not have to wait long to find out if their cornerbacks have what it takes to survive and prosper in the SEC. Having no returning experience to speak of, and being overall very young, makes for a promising future where the Carolina Corners are concerned, but for an edge-of-the-seat campaign in 2004.

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