Spring Storylines: The Ellis Johnson Defense

When South Carolina's spring practice officially starts Wednesday there will be several intriguing storylines to watch as USC head coach Steve Spurrier begins his fourth season with the Gamecocks. One area all eyes will be on is the USC defense and the changes new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will make. Read inside as GamecockAnthem.com breaks down what to look for.

Here is the pre-spring defensive depth chart USC recently released:

DE 40 Eric Norwood (6-1, 270, Jr.**)

96 Clifton Geathers (6-7, 290, So.*)

92 Byron McKnight (6-5, 236, Fr.-RS)

DT 79 Marque Hall (6-3, 314, Sr.***)

97 Kenrick Ellis (6-5, 353, So.*)

61 Donte'e Nicholls (6-1, 311, Fr.-RS)

DT 91 Ladi Ajiboye (6-1, 300, So.*)

99 Jonathan Williams (6-2, 290, Sr.*)

95 Nathan Pepper (6-1, 292, Jr.**)

DE 41 Jordin Lindsey (6-3, 261, Sr.***)

42 Travian Robertson (6-4, 270, So.*)

SLB 83 Cliff Matthews (6-4, 250, So.*)

31 Gerrod Sinclair (6-0, 234, Jr.**)

49 Damien Wright (6-0, 231, Jr.)

MLB 52 Jasper Brinkley (6-2, 275, Sr.*)

53 Marvin Sapp (5-11, 228, Sr.***)

6 Melvin Ingram (6-2, 269, So.*)

48 Vandaral Shackleford (6-0, 239, Jr.*)

WLB 45 Rodney Paulk (6-0, 226, Jr.**)

44 Dustin Lindsey (6-4, 242, Sr.**)

4 Alonzo Winfield (6-0, 218, Fr.-RS)

12 Shaq Wilson (5-11, 194, Fr.)

CB 5 Carlos Thomas (5-11, 197, Sr.***)

36 Stoney Woodson (5-11, 197, Sr.***)

3 Akeem Auguste (5-9, 179, Fr.)

FS 32 Darian Stewart (5-11, 218, Jr.**)

23 Jay Spearman (6-0, 190, Fr.)

SS 21 Emanuel Cook (5-10, 214, Jr.**)

28 Chris Hail (5-10, 199, Jr.**)

26 Antonio Allen (6-2, 190, Fr.)

CB 1 Captain Munnerlyn (5-9, 185, Jr.**)

7 Addison Williams (5-8, 181, So.*)

10 Jamire Williams (5-10, 186, Fr.-RS)

Multiple returning starters

With multiple starters returning at every position, the defensive depth chart has to look pretty good to the USC coaches. Eric Norwood, Emanuel Cook, and Captain Munnerlyn are returning All-SEC performers, and the return of Jasper Brinkley helps to solidify a run defense that struggled for the last half of the 2007 season. While Brinkley will not be back at 100 percent for spring ball, he is ahead of schedule with his rehab and will return as one of the team's emotional leaders in the fall.

USC's starters are strongest in the secondary. At safety USC returns Cook and Darian Stewart, who both started a season ago. Cook was a second team All-SEC performer, and after recovering from an early-season appendectomy, collected a team-leading 92 tackles on the year. Stewart busted onto the scene against Georgia and never looked back as a solid performer on the Gamecocks' defense. At cornerback, Munnerlyn may be slowed during spring ball while still recovering from a late-season injury, but will be back healthy for the start of the season. Munnerlyn is small in stature, but may be the best pure cover corner in the conference. The Alabama native is relentless and provides a spark to the defense. Opposite Munnerlyn, Carlos Thomas has the most experience, but Stoney Woodson is a seasoned veteran and could challenge for a starting spot.

The USC defensive line also features returning veterans. Eric Norwood is the heart of the d-line and plays with tremendous effort. Previously, just thought of as a pass rusher, Norwood has continued to improve his overall game during his time in Columbia and is poised to continue that trend. Norwood was second on the team in tackles with 69 and led the team with six sacks. Norwood is also a leader off the field and in the weight room.

Opposite Norwood, Jordin Lindsey returns as a starter after sitting out the 2007 season after being deemed academically ineligible. Lindsey is often forgotten, but always seems to make plays and will instantly help USC's run defense.

Inside, senior Marque Hall returns hoping to bounce back from an average year a season ago. Hall may not have been completely healthy last season after he suffered a season-ending knee injury during the 2006 season. The athletic defensive tackle could surprise this year and return to his prior form that he displayed in USC's opening game at Mississippi State in 2006. Sophomore Ladi Ajiboye returns alongside Hall after an impressive true freshman season where he garnered Freshman All-American honors. Ajiboye has size and quickness and has All-SEC potential if he can build off his first year in Columbia. While listed as a reserve on this depth chart, Jonathan Williams is more comfortable this year and could be hard to hold out of the starting lineup. The senior lineman has gained good weight during his time at USC and has a great combination of size and speed.

The day Brinkley steps on the field again at linebacker, the USC defense will immediately upgrade its overall talent level. The senior ‘backer is a game-changer, and USC fans will quickly remember why they missed him so much last year. Rodney Paulk, Marvin Sapp, and Dustin Lindsey all also have starting experience at linebacker.

New arrivals in the secondary

The USC secondary will get a much-needed depth boost from the likes of three freshman mid-year enrollees and another who redshirted a season ago. Florida natives Akeem Auguste and Antonio Allen join the defense after spending a season at Fork Union Military Academy. Allen is a long-striding safety who will have a chance to learn the defense and play immediately behind Cook and Stewart. Junior Chris Hail is the only other safety on the roster with experience, leaving the door wide open for a talented newcomer like Allen. There will be a steep learning curve for the hard-hitting defender, but with the entire defense learning a new system, too, Allen won't be as far off as he would have been.

While the depth at corner is not as lacking as at safety, Auguste has the speed and mindset to come in and make some noise. Much like starter, Munnerlyn, Auguste has a confident attitude and believes his man won't beat him. The physical speedster likely won't be able to break into the starting lineup unless there are injuries, but should garner some playing time off the bench and on special teams.

Jamire Williams redshirted last year, but also has all the tools to be an SEC performer. Williams rocketed to a lightning-fast 4.34-forty yard dash during the recent team testings and could make some noise at cornerback this year. Like Auguste, there are experienced guys ahead of him now, but Williams may be too good to keep off the field.

Former quarterback Jay Spearman graduated early from Greenwood High School to go through spring practice with the Gamecocks. Spearman is very raw at his new safety spot, but has the athletic ability to one day be a ball hawk in the USC secondary. Whether Spearman plays early or redshirts depends on how fast the freshman can learn his position as well as the USC defense.

Questions at linebacker?

The spot the defense has the most question marks at is linebacker. Johnson's first order of business as DC and linebackers coach will be to learn what he has there and find the right combination of guys he knows can play. Brinkley's return will help the unit a ton in the fall, but him missing the spring will allow Johnson to quickly determine what he has behind his superstar.

Cliff Matthews and Paulk are listed as the two starters on each side of Brinkley. Matthews is as talented as anyone on the USC defense, but is a more natural defensive end and will have to become comfortable with his linebacker role. If Matthews does not display the instincts needed to play in space, he may be moved back to end. If the Charaw native does exit the spring as the starting strongside linebacker then he will probably still play some DE in passing situations.

Paulk has experience, but is undersized and is coming off a year where he played injured for much of the time. While it is unclear if, when healthy, Paulk can be a big-time performer, he is the type of athlete that benefits greatly from having Brinkley playing alongside him.

Sapp took on the daunting task of replacing Brinkley a season ago. While the USC staff was able to mask the loss of Brinkley for a few games, the lack of size in the middle eventually hurt the run defense. Sapp is a hard-worker and capable reserve, but Johnson will have to find a bigger back-up to Brinkley in case the unthinkable happens and Brinkley is injured again. The easiest answer will be if sophomore Melvin Ingram can come into his own and get his weight troubles under control. Ingram has great instincts when he is comfortable and simply needs to get to the point where things slow down around him. Back-up weakside linebacker Dustin Lindsey won't take part in the spring while still recovering from a knee injury, but the former starter at linebacker could get a look at tight end in the fall.

Johnson will look to upgrade the overall athleticism of the linebacking corps with three defenders who played little-to-none a season ago. Junior Gerrod Sinclair has battled injuries during his career, but has the speed and athleticism to cover backs and tight ends in man coverage. Sinclair could earn a starting spot with a big spring. In the same mold as Sinclair, redshirt freshman Alonzo Winfield is a smaller, speedy ‘backer. Winfield surprised many, running a blistering 4.4-forty yard dash during team testings recently. After graduating from First Coast High School early and enrolling in January, Shaq Wilson will also get the chance to go through spring practice and show what he can do. Wilson is listed at just 194 pounds and will need to learn the defense in the spring and bulk up some in the summer to significantly contribute this year.

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