Ellis Johnson: Man on a Mission

Ellis Johnson has been part of rebuilding two SEC programs, helping create a national championship team at Alabama and helping to build an SEC also-ran into a respectable program at MSU. Now he has come home to South Carolina to help make the Gamecocks SEC title contenders. Johnson is optimistic after his first USC spring practice, and shared his thoughts about what he saw on the practice field.

This is Part One of a Two Part story. Part Two will be published Thursday.

South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier felt he needed to make some changes after his 2007 team finished the season with five straight losses after starting the season 6-1. Since Spurrier's primary focus as a coach is on offense, he places a great deal of trust in his defensive coordinator to take care of the ball on their side of the field and get the ball back in the offense's hands as quickly as possible. He brought in SEC veteran Ellis Johnson to take over the Gamecock defense, and the new defensive coordinator hit the ground running this spring to resolve the problems the defense faced last season. After an intense spring on the practice field where he got to know his new team's strengths and weaknesses, he ended the period mostly pleased with what he saw.

"Defensively, we have gotten a tremendous amount of work done in a short length of time," he said. "We have good players (but) overall we're a very young defense. This is a sophomore - junior football team on the defensive side of the field, and we've got some really outstanding freshman, and I think we've got a really good group coming in.

"When you look at what happened to South Carolina's defense last year and I was not there, but I have coached against them for two years in a row and have obviously been in the same conference. I can at least speak from a somewhat educated view. When you lose a Nathan Pepper, a Jasper Brinkley, and a Captain Munnerlyn, and you lose a critical and really big time impact player in each area of the field, you're going to suffer unless you've got extremely good quality depth. And those are the type things that I think these back, to back, to back, to back recruiting classes are going to fix for us. So, I'm excited about that.

"I think the future is before us, not this year, but two years out. I really think that 2009 group could be the best group, except for the fact that we have probably four or five guys on this defense that could come out of this season with a chance to be looked at to enter the NFL draft early. They'll be borderline guys, I think, but when you have a Ko Simpson and a Jonathan Joseph (coming out early) successfully a couple years earlier, it has an influence on kids sometimes. I'm a little concerned about that."

He cited Eric Norwood, Emanuel Cook, and Captain Munnerlyn as examples of players who could enter the NFL draft early, but that he hoped would stay for their senior year.

Johnson talked about where he thought the personnel at South Carolina are overall in contrast to his previous two stops in the SEC: "I think our personnel is very good. I've coached at Mississippi State and I've also coached in Alabama. When you look at Alabama, it's the program that has won more SEC Championships than any other school in the Conference. Mississippi State has never won an SEC Championship. From strictly a talent level, our players on this team right now are closer to most of the players I coached during my tenure at Alabama than what we dealt with at Mississippi State. Talent-wise, we are approaching the top half of this conference, if not (already) in the top half of the conference, in my opinion."

He sees things from a talent level at South Carolina that will allow him to do things he could not do at his previous school: "At Mississippi State, we reached a point with our talent level in the perimeter and what we were playing against week in and week out; we could not play a lot of press man. We just didn't have the corners that could do it against what we were seeing. So that's something that I'm excited about because I do think we have those kinds of players now. If we find out we don't, we get out of it, but I think we do. They're good cover guys.

"They're not as physical as our corners were at Mississippi State. We probably won't put them in as much run support as we did the corners of Mississippi State. But they're better man-cover guys, and we're going to be able to mix that philosophy a little bit more, which I'm anxious about and looking forward to, because man-to-man is easier to adjust to formation movements. Because basically, once you identify your man responsibility, you follow them on all the motion and shifting and things that people are doing today. Zone coverage requires a lot more checks and adjustments and practice time to get your people in (the right) formation. I like to have both, but it's always good when you can be a good sound man-to-man team. I think we've got that kind of skill in the secondary, and I know we have that kind of pressure up front; and that's what's going to hopefully allow us to do a greater percentage of that then I have in the past."

Johnson was realistic that there was a lot of work left to do to make this team capable of contending for a conference or division title, and that there were some positions that still needed to be strengthened. "We have some soft spots and a few questionable areas on our football team that are not premiere SEC level players. It's going to be a situation where we're going to have to go into the season and build that confidence and toughness, and mental toughness that you've got to have for winning this conference."

The issue of toughness was something Johnson kept coming back to as a concern that had to be fixed at USC. "Over all, I think we're young. In proportion, we're young. I'm not sure we're tough-minded enough right now to win big games in the SEC consistently, and I think that's critical; because in my experience in this Conference, having coached at Alabama and at Mississippi State, if you're not tough-minded and you're not mentally tough, and physically tough, and disciplined, you're not going to win big ball games in this conference.

"You're not just going to go out and beat people (using) skill and plays; you need tough-minded kids that are disciplined and can do things right, can finish a play every time, not just three out of four. Finish a quarter, finish a series, finish a half, and finish a game, and finish a season, because, to me, that's what's been missing. There's not been the discipline, the mental toughness, and the tough-mindedness to finish every situation that you've got to finish if you're going to win and win big in this Conference. Okay, we've proven we can win, but now we've got to prove we can win BIG. And I think that's the last step we've got to take. We've got enough talent to get it done."

As coordinator, Johnson has changed the defensive scheme to a 4-3 defense, which has required some adjustment in what position some players are playing. "We had to change the scheme a little bit. They were recruiting more towards a 3-4 defense. Three down lineman, four linebackers. Linebackers are bigger, stronger, 255-265 pound guys. In transitioning into a little bit more of a pure 4-3, some of those guys have got to move to defensive end, some of them have got to be linebackers. The one thing right now in trying to change this thing and tweak it a little bit is that we're trying to get the best players on the field, but we're also trying to get the best 11 in the right places to make the most impact on our scheme, and also that next 11, the best 22. If you don't have really good two deep and you're competing in the SEC, you're not going to win consistently and you're not going to be able to make it through a season unless you are extremely lucky, because it's a very physical league and injuries are a part of playing in this league. So, you've got to have depth."

Another change in the defensive sets Johnson is bringing in is a pro-style three safety package. "Some NFL teams, when they bring their nickel in, that's a fifth DB," he said. "A lot of times, that was cover responsibilities. Who can we get on the field to be another great cover guy? There's a little trend now to also bring in another safety, which is not as much of a coverage as it is to get a little bit more versatile player who can play out in space, as we call it, which would still be a good upfront player who can tackle well and blitz well. And we'll have that package."

Johnson cited Emanuel Cook as one player who would fit in that picture. Two others he talked about are players who made the switch from offense to defense this spring, Chris Culliver and Mark Barnes. "No question about it, they made a good move and have adjusted well in a short time," he said. "But we only had those kids about four or five practices, and two of them weren't even in pads. And so they have a long way to go. They're going to be every bit as good as Cook and Stewart, I think. But, right now they're not close to those two guys in the consistency level and all those type things."

He cited Culliver as one example of how good the talent level at USC is right now. "I think Culliver is about as talented a safety as I've been around in a long time. But, he's feeling his way right now. He doesn't know a lot of our system, and he's making a lot of mistakes." He said Culliver could also play in the three safety package once he gets to the point that he can really play in 25 to 35 plays a game.

A new player he thought might be ready for that package this fall is Shaq Wilson, the freshman linebacker from Jacksonville who enrolled early this past semester. "He's got a chance to be that guy, that third safety, who can wall out there." Another possibility he cited is Tori Childers. "He's going to be a great player I think, one day. And I think Carlos, Carlos Thomas is a big corner. You know, he's a six-foot, 195-200 pound corner. He could be that third type safety guy in that package we're talking about."

South Carolina was missing some of the key defensive players during spring practice they will need to be able to count on this fall, like Nathan Pepper, Jasper Brinkley and Captain Munnerlyn. Johnson addressed the rehabilitation of each of the three players coming back from injury.

Pepper: "Coach (Brad) Lawing felt like Nathan was probably his most overall well-rounded defense interior player before he got hurt. Hopefully that injury will not be something long term. It handicaps him." Johnson said Pepper has been very determined and disciplined during his rehab, but cited one area of concern: "His calf and his thigh are atrophied from no use, and that has not progressed to the point that the trainers and doctors feel good about it. So they've held him a little bit longer, but he should be ready to go in the fall."

Brinkley: "Brinkley's knee is fine. We held him back just because he's an older guy. We know he can play, and other than not having reps in your scheme, we felt like it was smarter for him to be healthy when we open up in the fall. He could have gone full speed in spring practice. He had a very good surgery, very good rehab, and he is full speed ready to go."

Munnerlyn: "He's going to be fine. He had kind of a delicate foot injury where they put a screw in a particular area that doesn't get a lot of blood circulation. We wanted to be a little bit more cautious on bringing him back too quickly." Munnerlyn did not get any full speed reps in the spring.

Johnson rattled off the status of two other players who missed or were limited in the spring. Marvin Sapp was held out. "He incurred a hernia during off-season training, and they felt like it had just not healed to the proper point that they could let him have full speed work this spring. Dustin Lindsey is no doubt a starter at the University of South Carolina... and he will come back."

Johnson cited the one positive of not having those players available in the spring: That's a lot of experience that we didn't have on the practice field during spring, but we got to look at a lot of young, fresh faces."

The coach had one other area he wanted Gamecock fans to know would be improved this season. "We're going to be better against the run, (even) if we have to give up some against the pass. If we have to, you know, not big plays, you know, deep passes, but if we're going to have to be a little less effective in stopping pass defense, we're going to do it. Football is won or lost up front, and it's won or lost by the team that can run the ball the best, if all other factors are equal. If you get a lot of turnovers involved or a lot of big plays involved, it may knock that stat out of the box. But when you've got two evenly matched football teams and one stat seems to carry on through ages and ages, if you get your rear end kicked in a rushing game on both sides, you're going to have a hard time winning that game. So, we've got to get better at that. I think we've got enough talent to do it. The scheme will definitely be tilted that way. We're going to play a lot more people in the box at times, and that may put a little more pressure on the secondary play, a little bit more man coverage back there."

He closed by returning to the subject of toughness. He has let his players know that practice with him at the helm would be physical. "There are things you have to do scheme wise, but we've got to get physically tougher and we've got to tackle better. And you tackle better by practicing tackling, and we've got to put more emphasis on that in practice. Everyday we've got to put time in tackling. Everybody thinks catching a football is a skill. Throwing a football is a skill, and intercepting the football is a skill. Tackling is a skill. If you don't practice it, you're not going to be good at it. So, it's one of the necessary evils. You get people hurt tackling, but if you don't learn how to tackle, you're not going to win any ball games."

And Ellis Johnson is all about winning ball games.

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