Defensive Notebook

While the offense got most of the attention in USC's fourth annual Garnet and Black Game on Saturday, the defense concluded a solid spring of work under new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. Read inside as caught up with Johnson and several of the defensive standouts following Saturday's spring finale.

Gamecocks Get Defensive

After the conclusion of last year's spring game in which the teams combined for only three touchdowns, all of which came in the first half, head coach Steve Spurrier vowed that the next time USC took the field for a spring game, points would be scored early and often.

And while the coach was partly right (the two squads combined for 71 total points), nobody foresaw the two starting quarterbacks combining for eight interceptions.

Garnet team quarterback Chris Smelley pulled a "Quincy Carter" by throwing five interceptions, all of which came in the first half, and Black team quarterback Tommy Beecher added three of his own.

"We almost set the spring game record for interceptions in the first half, we may have set it," Spurrier joked. "Defense made some good plays. We were hoping there would be some good defensive plays and some pretty good offensive plays, and go from there."

The secondary got the action going early as Chris Hail intercepted a Smelley pass on his first drive of the game. However, Beecher gave the ball right back to Smelley as Stoney Woodson deflected a pass intended for Moe Brown, which fell right into the hands of freshman linebacker Shaq Wilson.

With the Garnet team primed to tie the score early in the first, sophomore Mark Barnes picked off a Smelley pass right on the goal line to prevent a score. Barnes would add another interception in the next quarter.

Alonzo Winfield, Stoney Woodson, Akeem Auguste, and Mike Newton would also tally interceptions.

Newton's interception went for a touchdown.

The large amount of turnovers came as a surprise to many, as the Gamecocks employed only two or three different coverages the entire game, and did not blitz a single time.

Smelley was unsure what made the Gamecock defense swarm the way it did.

"I don't know if I can put a finger on one thing," Smelley said. "There were a couple bad decisions by me. I feel like I played well this spring. It just didn't come together today."

Safety Chris Culliver knew that the secondary's hard work would pay dividends in both the spring game and in the upcoming season.

"Defensive backs have been working hard," Culliver said. "Coach (Ron) Cooper and Coach (Shane) Beamer have just been pushing us. We just have been (playing hard) all the time, looking at films trying to get better."

Johnson reflects on spring performance

While his defense gave up several scores in the spring game, new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was pleased with the progress his defense made during the spring.

The former Mississippi State defensive coordinator was able to use the past several weeks to find his potential playmakers and pinpoint which players may not be ready for the spotlight at Williams-Brice stadium just yet.

"I think we had a good spring," Johnson said. "I think we definitely found out a lot about the guys that did get the 15 practices in. I think we know who we can count on and who maybe has not proven themselves yet."

However, Johnson is still anxious to find the key players that will contribute significantly during the 2008 season, as the Gamecock defense played without several of its key players this spring.

"I think until (Jasper) Brinkley's back in that lineup, Dusty's (Lindsey) back in that lineup, (Marvin) Sapp's back in the lineup, (Captain) Munnerlyn's back in the lineup, etc. Until we get those guys back out there playing together, I don't think we'll know the chemistry and the best 11 on this football team," Johnson said.

One thing Johnson was able to pinpoint over the last few weeks is the signifcant difference in talent compared to his defenses with the MSU Bulldogs.

"If you just go pure talent, athleticism, size, ability to run, big kids and little kids, we've got a lot better talent," Johnson said. "Now, we're not as old as that group we had last year. We're not as mature and we're not nearly as tough at this point. And I think its age. But, we're trying to make it that way in practice so it'll become a habit for them."

Johnson plans on molding his defense into a tough, physical group through harsh discpline over the upcoming months.

"What you can do as a coach is, no matter what you do, you make them do it right," Johnson said. "If you're going to have a meeting, you either come on time and bring what you're supposed to bring or get punished. If you're going to go to class, then go to class or get punished."

Without discplined players, Johnson says that you'll be hard pressed to win in a league as difficult as the Southeastern Conference.

"If you're going to run a rep, finish the play. If you don't finish the play, we're going to punish you. We want total efforts," Johnson insisted. "It's either going to become a habit or they're going to become somebody over there watching instead of playing. I just don't believe you can win in this league, I don't care how talented they are, you're not going to win in this league with kids that take a play off every seven or eight reps."

Former receivers make smooth transition

According to several recruiting publications, the consensus was that the Gamecocks 2007 wide receiver class was tops in the country.

Little did recruiting gurus and football junkies know that two of the Gamecocks highly touted receivers would end up on the other side of the ball.

Local Columbia product Mark Barnes and former prized recruit Chris Culliver made the move to the Gamecock defense this spring, and both have excelled in the secondary as of late.

Barnes picked off two passes in the Garnet and Black spring game, one of which was made at the goal line, preventing an early 7-7 tie.

"It felt great to get back on the field," an elated Barnes said. "We've learned a lot, and we're looking forward to the season. I told the team, ‘I promised you two (interceptions).'"

Meanwhile, Culliver picked up a fumble from C.C. Whitlock late in the contest which he ran back for a touchdown.

Culliver attempted to flip into the end zone, but couldn't land on his feet as he fell to the ground, resulting in a roar from the crowd.

"He (Coach Spurrier) approved dances, but not the flip," Culliver said. "Oh yeah, I had to make up my own thing; a little celebration for the fans."

Culliver also finished the game with five unassisted tackles.

Coach Johnson knows what the two can potentially bring to the table for the defense.

"We knew Culliver had played great at defensive back at high school," Johnson said. "Barnes and Culliver are two kids that we felt like could help in the secondary and they had not seperated themselves or made a push over on the other side at that point."

Johnson wasn't too quick to praise the two, however, as he noted several mistakes made by the duo throughout the game.

"He and Barnes, right now, they make a lot of mistakes," Johnson said. "They left a receiver uncovered today. They didn't cover the right guy. They'll have some confusion. They've only had five practices, but physically you can see the ability to be really good safeties in our scheme."

Newcomer making strides

One player Coach Johnson is extremely excited about coaching is freshman defensive back Akeem Auguste.

The Hollywood, Florida native developed a reputation for making highlight-reel plays defensively throughout spring practice, including a one-handed grab for an interception in the end zone during a scrimmage last week.

Auguste continued showing off his playmaking abilities when he intercepted a Chris Smelley pass in the second quarter.

"The newcomer that I think has got a chance to do things is Akeem Auguste," Coach Johnson said. "He's made plays out there you feel like a junior or senior (would make). The guy makes plays."

Johnson is impressed at the way in which Auguste carries himself.

"He looks like an older player. He's got awareness, he's got skills, got courage, he doesn't back off from anything. For a kid that just walked in here two months ago, he's impressive," he said.

One player who is not new to the USC football team, but will be at a brand new position is former outside linebacker Cliff Matthews.

When a reporter asked Coach Johnson who the one player will be that contributes the most during the 2008 season, Johnson wasted no time in pointing to Matthews.

"I'd start up front with Cliff Matthews," Johnson said. "That may be a shock, but Cliff's changed positions. He's going to be a defensive end. Just judging by what I've seen in the spring I think he's going to make four or five plays a game for us that are just really big time plays."

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