Vangorder, Rychleski perfect for the job
With Bud Foster once thought to be the next Gamecock defensive coordinator and then Ellis Johnson reported to be the leading candidate, the South Carolina DC search went full circle and right back to the guy whose name had been thrown around since the very beginning: Brian VanGorder.
While Tyrone Nix had done well with what he had to work with as South Carolina's co-defensive coordinator in 2005 and defensive coordinator 2006-07, Spurrier needed a coach he could trust to run the defense and a guy he could leave alone in doing so. Spurrier obviously wants to deal with the offense alone, and though Nix had his moments, Spurrier publicly admitted he would be overseeing the defense a lot more in practice during the final stretch of the 2007 season. Spurrier also needed someone who not only had quality experience but SEC experience, and VanGorder provides the Gamecocks with just that.
The fiery coach's days as Georgia's defensive coordinator from 2001-04 give VanGorder the SEC experience he needs and even his one year as Head Coach at Georgia Southern give him the managing experience needed to be a defensive coordinator under Spurrier as essentially the head coach of the defense. VanGorder's Georgia defenses were fast and aggressive, and while VanGorder does not have the complicated schemes some DC's do, he teaches a physical brand of football. His 2001 unit held serve with what the 2000 Georgia defense did before VanGorder's arrival, but his defenses really took off from 2002-04. During those three seasons VanGorder's hard-hitting Bulldog defenses gave up 182 yards a game through the air and 108 yards a game on the ground, good for third in the SEC during each of those seasons. VanGorder's defenses also ranked in the top 15 in the nation in total defense during those three seasons. Those defenses were even better at keeping teams out of the end zone as they surrendered only 15.38 points a game over the span, good for Top 10 in the nation in that category. VanGorder's 2003 defense gave up just 14.5 points and 277 yards a game, good for third and fourth in the nation, respectively, earning him the Frank Broyles "Assistant Coach of the Year" award.
VanGorder is not only a strong defensive coordinator, but also a proven commodity as a developer of talent at linebacker. The current Atlanta Falcons' Linebackers coach brings NFL coaching experience at the position due to his time with the Falcons and past experience as the Jacksonville Jaguars' Linebackers coach. VanGorder can easily slide into the same spot for the Gamecocks, which is now vacated by former coach Nix with very little shuffling. Though it will cause former outside linebackers coach Shane Beamer to make a move within the staff that is a small change in relation to the reshuffling that would have taken place had the new DC been a defensive line or secondary guru.
VanGorder molded talents like Boss Bailey, Will Witherspoon, and Thomas Davis into All-SEC performers and NFL linebackers. His first major order of business at South Carolina will be taking a defense that has struggled to stop the run for much of the Spurrier era and teaching the linebackers to get off blocks better and get in the backfield. That starts with convincing middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley to return for a final season in the garnet and black and turning Melvin Ingram's natural playmaking ability into consistent performances from the 250 pound rising sophomore. VanGorder will get help in turning the USC defense around from lockdown corner Captain Munnerlyn, head-hunting safeties Darian Stewart and Emanuel Cook, and an undersized defensive end whose motor never stops. Sound familiar?
While overshadowed by the wild defensive coordinator search and hire, the quiet and calculated addition of former Maryland Special Teams coordinator and Tight ends coach Ray Rychleski is just as important. Like VanGorder, Rychleski can ease into the USC coaching staff without too much damage as a direct replacement of former USC co-special teams coordinator and tight ends coach, Fred Chatham, once again only forcing Beamer to switch duties. Rychleski will bring new blood to and should oversee all phases of the Gamecocks' special teams units.
The 50 year old coaching veteran spent the last seven years at Maryland, and his units did not give up a single blocked punt the entire time he was there. In comparison the Gamecocks had three punts blocked in the final two games of the season. The Gamecocks got a small taste of how a big special teams play can turn a game around when Eric Norwood changed the momentum of the Mississippi State game by blocking a punt in the third quarter. Gamecock fans can only hope to see some more of that in the future as Rychleski's units blocked 22 kicks during his time at Maryland.
The former-Terrapin will have plenty to work with when he takes over for the Gamecocks as punt returner Captain Munnerlyn and kick returner Chris Culliver have all the tools to be good ones with the right blocking. Each of the speedy returners were close to breaking long runs for touchdown and one block here or there could have sprung them to game-changing big plays. Rychleski will also have talent to work with in the kicking game. All-SEC candidate kicker/punter Ryan Succop has NFL-type talent and class of 2008 Katy, TX star Ryan Doerr could help shoulder some of the load as Succop has handled place kicking, punting, and kickoff duties during the last two seasons. Rychleski's punters at Maryland earned ALL-ACC honors in six of his seven seasons with the Terrapins.
Many South Carolina fans are disappointed the Gamecocks' 2007 season took a turn for the worst after a 6-1 start, losing five straight contests to finish 6-6 leaving them home for the holidays. While that may be tough to stomach after the strides the program made in Spurrier's first two seasons at the helm, it does beg the question: Had Tennessee kicker Daniel Lincoln and Clemson kicker Mark Buchholz missed late-game field goals and the Gamecocks finished 8-4 with a bowl berth would Spurrier have looked to better his staff with these two major changes? The addition of VanGorder gives South Carolina one of the top defensive coaching staffs in the country with VanGorder coaching linebackers, Ron Cooper, who consistently produces top performers, coaching the secondary, and Brad Lawing coaching a defensive line that should come into its own next season. VanGorder and Rychleski will head up all operations of the defense and special teams, respectively, and allow Spurrier to do what he does best: coach quarterbacks and call ball plays.
While a 6-6 season isn't what Gamecock fans expected, who wouldn't trade a disappointing season now, for an SEC Championship in the near future?
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