The Front Seven is for real
In Steve Spurrier's first two seasons as head coach at South Carolina, the defense was fairly average. While those units featured talented individuals such as Ko Simpson, Jonathan Joseph, and Jasper Brinkley, they lacked depth and did not have the size up front to compete with the traditional SEC powers' large, athletic offensive linemen. The lack of a consistent pass rush, as well as the inability to stop teams from running up the middle or make the big play in the secondary led to close losses and kept the Gamecocks from fielding a true championship-caliber defense. In those two seasons, the Gamecocks ranked 10th and 9th in total defense in the SEC. Looking back, it's amazing what Spurrier and Defensive Coordinator Tyrone Nix were able to accomplish with the deficiencies on those teams.
Prior to the start of the 2007 season, the USC defense received high praise from those close to the Gamecock program and even Coach Spurrier himself. While most indications were the defense would be a strength, they had yet to prove their practice prowess would translate to a better product on the field. Many years of heartache has taught Gamecock fans not to put too much confidence in "Proving Ground" heroes before they show it on the field.
Talented returning players such as Jasper and Casper Brinkley, Eric Norwood, and Marque Hall, who returned to action after missing most of last season with a knee injury, have played big roles on the attacking Gamecock defense. Newcomers Ladi Ajiboye, Travian Robertson, and Cliff Matthews have played a part in the unit's success as well. One factor that has given Nix more freedom than in the past is the versatility of his players. Eric Norwood, Casper Brinkley, and most recently Cliff Matthews give Nix three players who can play at a high level with their hand down or in space dropping into coverage. Before his season-ending knee injury, Nathan Pepper showed the ability to play defensive tackle and also slide over to defensive end and play well.
The Secondary is pretty good too
Perhaps just as impressive as the versatility of the players in the front seven has been the ability of South Carolina's defensive backs to play multiple positions. Both Brandon Isaac and Stoney Woodson have been cross-trained to play both safety spots as well as cornerback. Darian Stewart, who was a steal from the Alabama prep ranks in the 2006 class, as well as Emanuel Cook can play both safety spots, with Cook also playing a hybrid linebacker position in dime packages. The luxury of changing positions around in order to get the best players on the field has allowed the Gamecock defense to absorb losses such as Cook, who missed some time after having an appendectomy, as well as Isaac, who will miss at least this week with an injured shoulder, without much drop off in production.
Secondary coach Ron Cooper is not talked about as much as some of the other talented assistants on the USC staff, but Cooper's track record should speak for itself as one of the top defensive backs coaches in the nation.
Maybe the most amazing thing about the play of the Gamecock defense is the lack of individual star power on the unit, according to the rest of the country anyway. While there is NFL talent, a strong secondary, and one of the deepest front sevens South Carolina has fielded in a long time, only one player received preseason All-SEC accolades (Jasper Brinkley).
Tight ends do have a place in the Steve Spurrier Offense
Anyone who attended the open scrimmages and practices prior to the season probably noticed a lot more balls going to the tight ends than he or she had seen in Columbia in a long time. There had been talk in previous years of how the tight ends would finally become a staple in the South Carolina offense, only to see them used mainly as blockers and decoys. So forgive your Gamecock brethren if they wanted to see it with their own eyes under the Williams-Brice lights before believing it. Now three weeks into the season, the tight ends have lived up to their preseason billing and are finally becoming an instrumental part of the Gamecock offense.
Senior Andy Boyd is widely known as an excellent blocker, but he too has been given the opportunity to make plays in the passing game.
True freshman Weslye Saunders has also contributed and looks like the star of the future at the tight end spot, while redshirt freshman Nick Prochak will likely get more reps with Saunders out with an injury.
As a group, the Gamecock tight ends have caught 11 passes for 157 yards on the season, just one catch shy of the 12 passes they caught in the entire 2006 campaign. With the offense struggling to find a second wide receiver option, the tight ends will have to continue to play an important role in USC's passing game in order for the offense to be successful.
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