Practice report: Offense making strides

With their practice Wednesday night, the Gamecocks reached the halfway point of spring practice. The offense had perhaps its best practice of the spring, but on the flip side, the defense had to have had one of its more disappointing sessions. Predictably, Steve Spurrier was more upbeat after practice than was defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson.

The Gamecocks practiced 11-on-11 drills at the end of practice, and the coaches put a little extra on the final snap. Starting inside the red zone, if the offense scored a touchdown, they won the practice. If the defense got a stop, they would be the winner. The offense got the upper hand, as tight end Jared Cook managed to haul in a well covered pass for the touchdown. In turn, the defense was forced to run wind sprints after practice.

"We put a little game on the last play," Spurrier explained. "The offense hit a fade to Jared Cook so the offense won the one-play contest."

Despite the strong performance, Spurrier was unwilling to offer too much praise for the offense. As a perfectionist, he is always very cautious about handing out compliments, and Wednesday night was no exception. Even though most observers came away impressed with how quarterbacks Chris Smelley and Tommy Beecher threw the ball, Spurrier refused to offer up much praise.

"Yeah, they're doing okay," was all Spurrier said. It was, however, probably his best compliment this spring.

Spurrier was a little more encouraged by the play from the rest of the offense, saying that he has seen improvement. In particular, he was excited to have center Garrett Anderson back. Anderson has missed most of spring practice with a back injury, but he practiced full speed on Wednesday.

"He's a guy that needed all spring," said Spurrier, "but he hasn't hit anybody yet."

As well as the offense played, the player who caught Spurrier's eye was redshirt freshman wide receiver Jason Barnes. Barnes showed good body control in red zone situations, and also made some catches in the open field.

"Jason Barnes made a few catches tonight," Spurrier said. "Maybe he's going to come around and be a ballplayer here next year."

While several positives have occurred this spring, Spurrier emphasized that the team must still prove themselves in the fall.

"We'll wait and see how we play the games," he said. "It's still all practice, but hopefully it will translate into guys playing with more discipline and more effort. We've got a lot of good players here, we need to coach better and play better. If we do those two we'll have a chance."

Johnson expects more toughness from defense

Although Spurrier was relatively pleased with the practice, new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was far less impressed. When he spoke after practice, Johnson immediately condemned the level of toughness his unit showed.

"Right now my biggest concern is we are not a very physical football team," he said. "If we're going to win in this league we've got to be more physical."

What concerns Johnson the most is that the defense is not showing toughness in practice. If you do not play tough, physical football in practice, he says, you will not play tough in games.

"If you want to pick corn on Saturdays you plant corn, you don't plant strawberries," said Johnson. "If you don't work and play physical on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, you're not going to flip a light switch on and all of a sudden become a tough guy. They've got to get an attitude and an air about them about playing physically tough."

As Johnson tries to instill a level of mental and physical toughness, he also has to concern himself with teaching his players a new playbook. Adding to the difficulty, starters Jasper Brinkley, Captain Munnerlyn, and Nathan Pepper are all sitting out the spring. Add in several key reserves who are out with injury, and it is a challenge for Johnson to install his defense.

"I wish we had 25 more days, there's just not enough time to get it all done, especially putting in a new system," he said. "We keep adding a few little things and going into different situations. Every time we put something in, I see that hesitation and learning, they don't know exactly what to do on some of the new things. We've gotten enough of our package that we're able to evaluate who can play in the different substitution packages. We're getting to see a lot of people and find out who can play."

In that vein, Johnson pointed to three young players who have stood out early in practice. Linebacker Shaq Wilson and cornerbacks Addison Williams and Akeem Auguste have earned kudos for their effort this spring.

"[Wilson] is a good young player with natural instincts," Johnson said. "He's really picked things up fast. He's really sharp mentally and he's done a good job. He's a very undersized kid right now, but I've really been pleased with him. Both corners, Adi and Auguste, both of those kids have got some really good cover skills. I've been really impressed with those guys."

Johnson has also been pleased with one of his more surprising coaching decisions. At the beginning of spring practice, Johnson moved Eric Norwood, an All-SEC performer at defensive end, to linebacker. To fill the spot, he moved linebacker Cliff Matthews up to defensive end. While it may seem like folly to make an all-conference player change positions, Johnson is thrilled with how the move has panned out.

"He has picked it up," said Johnson. "I think if he loses a little bit of weight, he was 270 when he made the move and I think when he gets down around 250 he'll really be a more mobile player. I saw him in space a couple of times and I really liked what I saw. He really made some breaks on the football that were good. He's starting to get more comfortable out there."

Matthews came to Carolina as a defensive end, so the move has been more natural for him. His play has been one of the highlights of the spring for Johnson.

"The move of Cliff Matthews, no question about it, he's in the right place," Johnson said. "He and [defensive tackle] Ladi [Ajiboye] are really disruptive and can make a lot of plays."


- The Gamecocks will practice at 4:15 on Friday and the scrimmage Saturday morning.

- Carolina will host its annual coaches' clinic this weekend. High school coaches from around the state will attend, and Jon Gruden, who won a Super Bowl as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will be the featured speaker.

- Defensive lineman Clifton Geathers missed practice for an unspecified reason.

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