Gamecock defense returns experience, depth
While most of South Carolina's nine coaches were on the road recruiting for the May evaluation period, only seven are allowed out at one time and Cooper has already put in his three weeks.
Cooper spoke on multiple topics, even opening up the floor for questions at the end. But the main theme of his speech was the importance of developing players and depth, while building your football team around experienced upperclassmen.
"If you play a lot of freshmen in the SEC, you're not going to win. You can't look at a single team that played a bunch of freshmen and sophomores that's winning," Cooper said." When you get to where you can take those guys and make them fifth-year guys, you're a better football team when you're playing with 22 and 23-year olds out there than you are with 18-year olds."
While USC has been forced to play freshmen on both sides of the ball for much of the last three seasons, Cooper believes in year four of Spurrier's tenure the defense may finally be at the point where it is built around experienced athletes.
"We're more mature right now on the defensive side of the ball than we've been the entire time I've been here. We've got guys who played a couple of years ago. We're talking about Captain (Munnerlyn) and Darian Stewart, and Emanuel Cook that three years ago were freshmen playing, that now they're juniors playing. Jasper (Brinkley) is back, and we feel like our front probably is better than it's ever been."
While Cooper has been a huge part of the development of the players in USC's secondary, he gives credit to strength and conditioning coach Mark Smith for getting the players' bodies ready for SEC play. Cooper also explained some of the new measures the staff is taking to continue the players' offseason development.
"I've been at eleven universities. I've been a head coach for nine years, and there's no doubt that (Mark Smith) is the best in the business," Cooper said. "We met with a lady this morning that's going to put part of our team through Pilates. They've got some things going on to get the d-linemen and o-linemen's hands quicker. All of these are necessary things Mark is going to make sure… are provided to make our players become better student-athletes."
Cooper acknowledges that while you want to have your defense built around these developed juniors and seniors, some freshmen are too good to keep off the field, citing Sidney Rice and Ko Simpson as examples of players who contributed as freshmen. Defenses in college football are only as good as their depth, and a good defense needs to be 22 deep to be consistently successful throughout the season, according to the veteran coach.
Freshman Akeem Auguste, redshirt freshman Mark Barnes, and true sophomore Chris Culliver are three young players the defense will be counting on to fill out their depth chart. Auguste immediately grabbed the attention of coaches and fans this spring when as a January transfer from Fork Union Military Academy he displayed dazzling cover skills and uncanny big-play ability.
"He's got really good potential. He's going to be able to play; he will play for us this year. We're excited about him; he's got a lot of talent. We knew it when we recruited him two years ago; I thought he was the best defensive back I saw on films two years ago."
Barnes and Culliver both started out on offense this spring, but quickly moved up the safety depth chart after requesting a move to defense early in spring ball. Both were extremely highly-touted prospects out of high school and will likely start alongside each other one day.
"(They are) very talented young men, and we feel good about them that they can come in and play. They'll be a big part of our nickel and dime packages. If something were to happen to our two guys, they've got to go in there and start. I think nowadays you've got to have 22 guys ready to play, and there's no doubt in my mind that we're going to be able to get the right guys on the field."
In South Carolina's dime package safety Darian Stewart moves down to a hybrid linebacker spot, Culliver comes in at safety, and another cornerback enters the game in the place of the strongside and weakside linebackers. In the changing landscape of college football and with the popularity of the spread offense, South Carolina's nickel and dime packages may see more time on the field than their base package against certain teams. According to Cooper, the biggest difference between coach Tyrone Nix's scheme seen last year and the one new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will employ this year is the amount of dime the Gamecocks will use.
"You have to play a six-defensive back (dime) scheme. Everybody is spreading you out. The days of just having two backs in the backfield and the tight end and two wide outs (on offense) are sort of gone. There are still teams that are running it, but at the same time part of the problems we've had (last year) were when the teams spread us out."
Louisiana-Lafayette, Arkansas, and Florida all spread USC out and all had success, combining to score 113 points while averaging almost 38 points a game. Each team torched the Gamecocks on the ground, rushing for a combined 1,026 yards for an average of 343 rushing yards a game and 11 rushing touchdowns.
Despite his reputation for being one of the top defensive back coaches in the country, Cooper acknowledges to be successful in the SEC you have to stop the run and put teams in third and long situations.
"If you're ranked in run defense in the bottom half of the conference, you're not going to be very good. You right now can't name the great quarterbacks in the SEC that can beat you (downfield) on third down. We have to be in position where we can stop the run and put them in third and long.
"I do think this year, talent-wise, we have enough fire-power with guys coming back that can help us play really, really good defense."
As the safeties coach and dime package coordinator, Cooper is given the daunting task of also making sure the defense can cover all the receivers the spread-offense teams put on the field. While USC has been forced to stay in their base packages against spread teams in the past due to depth problems, those days may be over.
"We feel like we've got a pretty good plan right now. Not only with Chris (Culliver) and Mark (Barnes), but with Akeem Auguste coming through and Captain (Munnerlyn) back healthy… we now know we can lock up and match up with anybody in the SEC and cover them."
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