Johnson working to help 'D' reach potential

GamecockAnthem.com's Rich Taylor chatted with USC defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson about a variety of topics during Sunday's Media Day at Williams-Brice Stadium. Read inside for some thoughts the "Head Coach of the Defense" shared on how his 2008 unit is coming along heading into the fall.


Q: Considering the great defenses you coached over the years at Alabama, Clemson, Mississippi State, etc., how does this Carolina unit rate talent wise?

A: "I just look at them person-to-person, man-to-man, and see a very talented Southeastern Conference-type bunch. But that just doesn't mean anything. Now I'm not saying that you wouldn't rather have it than not have it, but I look back on my 34 years coaching and the more talented kids I've had on certain years weren't necessarily my best football players. So what they do with it - what we get out of them - is going to be the story. Obviously you'd rather have good players than non-talented players, but it's all a matter of what these kids are going to bring to the table intensity-wise, (their) mental toughness, practice habits and all of that.

The other thing about this team is that they were pretty young last year. And the 3 or 4 guys that had a little experience under their belt, a lot of them got hurt. Leadership and maturity, when it was gone, the rest of them didn't step up. So we've got a lot to prove, we've got a whole lot to prove. I appreciate the fans optimism, but nothing's been done yet, we've got to get out there on the field and get it done."

Q: The relationship between you and Coach Spurrier, with his desire to essentially turn the defense over to you so he can concentrate solely on his duties as Offensive Coordinator and mentor the quarterbacks, appears to be the "perfect marriage' from the outside looking in. Is it?

A: "(Chuckles) Well, everything's perfect 'til things aren't going well. Then nothing's perfect. There's no question he wants his focus on that side of the ball and doesn't want to have to doctor up everything else. And that's our job to try to get that done. But I know if something's not right, he'll be there to straighten it out real quickly. With Coach Spurrier, I've really tried to be a sponge and absorb from him. He does such a great job of attacking schemes. He knows what you are doing and what schemes you're in. He's so good at attacking them, and that's what I want to know because obviously you want to know what people (opponents) are going to try to do. So that's been a big help."

Q: Have you had a chance to have much of a look at Larry Freeman at linebacker?

A: "Just in jerseys. He's picked things up better than we thought. It doesn't mean he's got it now, he has a long way to go. But for a kid to move to the opposite side of the ball at a new position, he's picked up things pretty good. I hope he can give us some depth at safety because we're trying to work a lot of five DB schemes because of all the spread teams we're gonna face over the course of the year. So there's a lot of stuff we want to be able to do with three safeties on the field, and Larry's one of the guys we're hoping will give us some depth at that position. I'm very anxious to see how Larry's gonna handle it once we put on pads. Is he a natural contact player? Does he tackle well? Is it gonna take him three or four weeks to learn how to do all that? Is it going to be too long for him or too frustrating? Who knows? So far he's had a great attitude. His physical skills, well there's no question, it could be a great stop for him. So hopefully it will all work out well."

Q: How is Eric Norwood's transition to linebacker coming along?

A: "He's doing fine. Very knowledgeable. The instinctive part of it's good. He's still awfully big for an outside linebacker. It's not that he's a bad athlete, there's just a lot of stuff you have to do dropping out in coverage and all those things. I don't want to waste his talent in having him do that too much. So if he ends up staying there, and right now he has to, we'll have some things where he's involved a lot in the pass rush that are very similar to last year. Is he built to drop back in pass coverage 50 snaps a game and chase receivers all over the field? No. Is he gonna have to do that 50 times in a game? No. Will he stay at WILL linebacker right now? We don't have any choice. But it's very likely he could go back, we could shift into some schemes to get him back up on the line of scrimmage and do some things like that for him. But he's fine. He's doing real well right now."

Q: Is Gerrod Sinclair the other linebacker running with the ones along with Norwood and Brinkley?

A: "As base linebackers, he's our #1 SAM (strongside) linebacker."

Q: And Rodney Paulk?

A: "He's backing up Jasper right now (at middle LB). But I'll tell you this: There's very little difference in Rodney and these other guys. You know Rodney has started every ball game since he's been here. It's unbelievable. And I can understand why. He's always alert, always intense about learning, doesn't miss things out on the field, doesn't make mistakes. And for that reason, it's hard to separate him from the bunch. Right now, he'd play a lot of football for us."

Q: How is Chris Culliver looking at safety?

A: "Talent-wise he fits the bill. His finish in the spring and the practices so far have been smooth. He pushes those front guys (on the depth chart) a little bit."

Q: What does it mean to have Jasper back this year?

A: "That remains to be seen. Just common sense says that it ought to mean a lot to our football team from just the leadership and confidence standpoint. Physically, he's proven himself since he's been here... what kind of player he is. So I hope it's going to mean a lot to our football team, but how much remains to be seen. There's no question he's going to be a big help. Just how big, we'll see."

Q: So are you pretty excited to be back in South Carolina?

A: "We're glad to be here!"


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