Stewart to play key role in Johnson's scheme

The spread offense has become the trendy scheme around the country, and the SEC is no exception. With Florida using the spread to churn out yards and a Heisman Trophy winner, and Arkansas and Auburn installing new spread schemes this fall, the onus is now on defensive coordinators to figure out how to defend the spread. Enter new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and safety Darian Stewart.

Johnson is installing a new 4-2-5 scheme for the Gamecocks' defense. In the package, he pulls a linebacker off the field and sends in an extra safety. One of the safeties will move into the box to play a hybrid safety/linebacker position called the spur. At first glance, the new formation looks like a nickel package, where a cornerback replaces a linebacker, but Johnson does not want to confuse the two.

"It's a nickel package in that you've got a fifth DB," he says, "but you're playing base defense to stop the spread attack, run attack, and all that. It's very common right now, and it complements our scheme real well. It's easy to draw it on the board, but we've got to find those guys that can fill up those holes."

The guy who has to fill the biggest hole is Stewart. The junior played mostly on special teams as a freshman, but had a breakout campaign last season. He finished third on the team with 68 tackles, nabbed a pair of interceptions, and followed that by being named the Defensive Player of the Spring. Now he is being asked not only to learn a new defense, but a new position.

"I feel like it really doesn't matter; whatever I can do to help the team," Stewart says of the change.

That attitude reflects increased maturity from Stewart. At Media Day, almost every player is asked what they tried to improve on over the summer. Most players talk about getting in better shape, refining skills, or getting stronger. Stewart, on the other hand, talked about his locker room presence.

"Just basically becoming a better leader, for the team, for the defense," he says. "Just making sure everybody's doing the little things right, talking, being a leader on the field, making changes, and all that."

Johnson would certainly be glad to read the last part of what Stewart said. It was noticeable from the very first practice that Johnson wants his defenders to communicate before the snap. In previous years, the only voice heard pre-snap was the quarterback's as he made audibles. This year, the quarterback is drowned out by the defense, as every shift, by an offensive or defensive player, is met with shouts.

"Basically Coach Johnson emphasized we've got to talk," says Stewart, "we've got to be able to communicate where we're going to be and where we're supposed to be. Us being older, we know what it takes to get that done, too."

"A lot of the things we do, our safeties are inserted into the box," Johnson explains. "The communication between them and the linebacker corps has to be there for everybody to be on the same page. I hope that's something we are doing well. You can hear it on the practice field, and I hope it will carry over."

Johnson has been pleased with how Stewart has picked up the new role, calling it, "second nature to him." He is more concerned with the third safety, who has to fill Stewart's free safety position when he moves into the box. Sophomores Mark Barnes and Chris Culliver are being counted on to step into that role. Both are teaming with talent, but very short on experience.

"Our depth at safety may not be as deep as everybody thinks it is," says Johnson. "We've got two guys coming back that have proven they are pretty good players in this league, in Cook and Stewart. We've got some good backups [Chris Hail and Stoney Woodson] who've had a few snaps, but they certainly haven't played at that level. Then you've got two young kids that we didn't get until about four days to go in spring practice in Barnes and Culliver. They've got to step up."

"All of the sudden, if you want to get Stewart out there in that fifth DB spot against the spread, then somebody's got to step up and take his place," Johnson continues. "If you lose the level of play back there where he stepped out, then all of the sudden you've borrowed from Peter to pay Paul. You're not gaining anything and you may want to leave the linebacker on the field."

Barnes has been hampered by a sore hamstring that has kept him out of some practices. As a result, he has fallen behind Culliver. With over two weeks to go until the first game, Culliver appears to be playing well enough to allow Stewart to move up. Another bright spot has been converted wideout Larry Freeman. Freeman has been practicing at the spur position, and has shown enough progress that the coaches are expecting him to contribute.

Whether he is playing the new spur position or back at safety, fans will have to get used to a different look from Stewart. After wearing number 32 his first two years in Columbia, Stewart switched to number 24 in the spring. That number formerly belonged to linebacker Cody Wells, who graduated following last season. Stewart waited his turn, and now he has the number he likes, although he insists there is nothing special about the digits.

"It's just a number I've had since my freshman year [in high school]," he says.

While it may take some fans a little while to catch onto Stewart's new number and new position, look for the versatile and productive defender to play a key role and make his presence felt on the Gamecock defense this fall.

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