Below GamecockAnthem.com's trio of writers discuss five burning questions surrounding the Gamecock defense heading into the 2008 season.
1. What kind of impact will the hiring of Ellis Johnson have on the Gamecocks' defense this season?
Jonathan Jolley: Obviously the true returns on the hiring of Ellis Johnson won't be known until the Gamecocks take the field and play this fall, but all indications since the spring have pointed to Steve Spurrier and the USC players being very impressed with the coaching style of the new defensive coordinator. Johnson is a perfectionist, and he wants his players to do all the little things right and to completely understand their assignments, even if that means not installing as many schemes for them to learn. He's also emphasized playing a more physical brand of football and finishing every play - two areas the Gamecocks struggled in last season.
Heading into the season, I believe Johnson's attention to detail and his demand for the USC players to perform up to his standards of effort and intensity or sit on the bench should pay dividends on the field this fall. How the USC players pick up and execute Johnson's new 4-2-5 scheme has yet to be seen, but I certainly expect the Gamecock defense to be a more hard nosed unit this season as a result of Johnson's coaching.
Johnson is also an incredible game day coach and defensive play-caller. He has experience in the SEC and experience against all types of defenses. Only time will tell how much of an impact Johnson ultimately has, but I believe you will see a defense that is put in the right place to succeed more often than not, and in turn, less mismatches for the opposing offense. The hire of Johnson also allows Spurrier to spend all of his time dealing with the offense, something he hasn't always been able to do while at South Carolina.
Christopher Wellbaum: This is a tough question to answer. Without having played a snap of real football, the biggest impact Johnson has made is with personnel. He moved Eric Norwood to linebacker and installed a 4-2-5 formation that utilizes a third safety and "Spur." What impact is Johnson trying to make with these moves?
The moves are all designed to get the Gamecocks' best talent on the field. Norwood is an upgrade at linebacker, and sophomore Cliff Matthews is a rising star at Norwood's old defensive end position. As for the Spur, Johnson admitted early in camp that he would only use the 4-2-5 if he felt his safety was better than his linebacker.
2. The Gamecocks have struggled to stop the run on defense in each of Steve Spurrier's first three seasons at USC. Why will this year be different?
Jonathan Jolley: Having success stopping the run generally comes down to three factors - Fielding capable personnel, playing good assignment football, and displaying the toughness and "want to" at the point of attack. The USC defense has been at its worst against the run in recent years when relying on too much youth at key positions, but missed assignments and an overall lack of toughness have certainly contributed to the porous run defense as well.
The good news for the Gamecocks this season is they return ten starters on defense, and they welcome back proven, hard nosed veterans Jasper Brinkley, Nathan Pepper, and Jordin and Dustin Lindsey from injury - or in Jordin Lindsey's case, academic ineligibility. There's a lot of returning talent, depth, and experience on the 2008 USC defense, and it would be hard not to show improvement against the run based solely on the returning players being a year older and stronger. But the hiring of Ellis Johnson should also result in better assignment football and a more physical brand of play. The jumbo linebacker tandem of Brinkley and Eric Norwood will only help that cause.
Improving against the run has been a rallying cry for the Gamecocks during the offseason, and with the returning personnel and new scheme in place, significant improvement should be expected, assuming the defense can stay relatively healthy.
The defense also gets back Jordin Lindsey and Nathan Pepper, who both missed most of last season. Pepper and Lindsey are set to start on the defensive line and are excellent against the run. A new scheme, a new play-caller, and the addition of three talented run-stuffers back in the line-up is plenty of reason for optimism when it comes to stopping the run.
Christopher Wellbaum: Why indeed? The first thought is that with the return of Jasper Brinkley and Norwood moving to linebacker, the Gamecocks have more than enough size to stop the run. But then they take the third linebacker off the field and add a safety, negating some of the size. Size was not really the issue last season, though. The teams that ran at will against Carolina (like Arkansas, Florida, and Louisiana-Lafayette) were teams that were able to spread the field and attack holes in the defense. Traditional rushing attacks were still able to chew up yardage, but not at such an astonishing pace.
The Spur position, basically a safety that plays in the box like a linebacker, is designed to combat spread offenses. The Spur, either Darian Stewart or Larry Freeman, is supposed to have the quickness to chase the speedy rushers that gashed the Gamecocks last year. Across the country, it is still a bit of a mystery how to stop the spread, but at least Johnson is trying something new.
3. How will the defensive position moves pan out this season, specifically with Eric Norwood moving to linebacker, Cliff Matthews to defensive end, Darian Stewart to Spur linebacker, and Chris Culliver and Mark Barnes to safety?
Jonathan Jolley: Ellis Johnson put his stamp on the USC defense early in the spring when he moved Cliff Matthews from linebacker to his natural position of defensive end, and asked Eric Norwood to transition from defensive end to weakside linebacker. Both moves have turned out very well in practice, and many believe that Matthews, one of the most athletic and active defenders on the team, is primed for a breakout season at defensive end this fall. Norwood has dropped more than ten pounds from his playing weight at defensive end, and he's displayed a very natural ability to move in space and make plays when lining up with his hand off the ground. Norwood, who should be of tremendous help in run support at linebacker, is simply a playmaker no matter where he lines up on the field, and he's still expected to see time at defensive end in pass rushing situations this season.
Darian Stewart sliding down a level to Spur linebacker and Chris Culliver transitioning from wide receiver to starting free safety are simply examples of USC getting its best eleven players on the field, not to mention adding more speed to match up with the potent spread offenses that the Gamecocks will face this season. Mark Barnes, who moved from wide receiver to defense early in the spring along with Culliver, has a nice upside at safety and has shown flashes of being a very good player there in his own right, but he's battled some nagging injuries and hasn't picked things up quite as quickly as Culliver. Still, the position moves of the offseason all appear to be in the best interest of the defense both this season and long term.
If Culliver plays anything like he has practiced, then the move will be extremely successful. The former four-star safety looked confused and uncomfortable at wide receiver, but appears smooth and in-charge in the defensive backfield. Equally as natural has been the Matthews move. He is clearly at home at DE and has the potential to be one of USC's best ever. There's no question in my mind this one will pan out.
I admittedly had my doubts about the Norwood move in the beginning, but he has proved he is as versatile as they come. I am still somewhat concerned about good offensive coordinators getting Norwood isolated in man-to-man coverage with tight ends and running backs, but only time will tell if that will become an issue. The Barnes move should pan out in the long run once the RNE product gets more comfortable with the defense. Johnson has undoubtedly put his stamp on the defense without them even stepping on the field yet. Even the much-questioned move of Larry Freeman to the "Spur" spot has shown some promise.
Christopher Wellbaum: Moving Matthews, Culliver, and Barnes has proven to be a no-brainer. The three sophomores are now at their more natural positions, and Culliver and Matthews in particular have done a lot to establish themselves as key players heading into the season. Barnes has played well in camp, but is stuck behind Culliver.
The moves involving Norwood and Stewart are a little more interesting. You do not often move an all-conference performer like Norwood to a new position, and Stewart similarly played very well at safety last year. The key for both players is that they are not being asked to do anything dramatically different from last year. Norwood frequently played with his hand off the ground last season, and he is still going to be called on to rush the passer, his best skill, on third downs. Stewart is officially playing a new position, but his responsibilities will essentially be the same. The biggest adjustment for him will be that he is lining up closer to the line of scrimmage, where he will have more traffic to navigate and have to make quicker decisions.
4. The USC defense has several returning All-SEC performers, but is there an emerging player on defense this preseason that could have a breakout year and be a household name by season's end?
Jonathan Jolley: I expect talented sophomores Cliff Matthews and Chris Culliver to both break onto the scene with strong seasons in 2008, their first year as starters, but my pick for the emerging player that could be a household name by season's end is junior linebacker Darian Stewart. Granted, he was a starter at free safety last season and performed very well at times, but he took a backseat publicity-wise to his running mate at the other safety spot, Emanuel Cook. Stewart has had a great offseason, one in which he earned Defensive Player of the Spring honors, and he appears primed for a breakout year at his new position of Spur linebacker.
Stewart is a key player in the Gamecocks' new 4-2-5 scheme, and the role of being a hybrid safety/linebacker fits his skill set to a T. If Stewart stays healthy and has the kind of year he's capable of, I wouldn't be surprised if he's contending for All-SEC honors at the end of the year.
Christopher Wellbaum: Chris Culliver has the best chance of being that guy. He was a 5-star wide receiver prospect on another recruiting service based on his speed, but it was clear last season on offense that he did not have the natural ability to be a good receiver. He made the switch to defense toward the end of spring practice, and showed he does have that natural ability at safety. At the beginning of camp, Johnson expressed concern over whether one of the young safeties could step up and take over for Stewart and allow Johnson to run the 4-2-5. Culliver's inexperience made him a question mark, but he proved to be a fast learner, and he has made an impact in camp with his play against the pass and run.
5. With all of the talent, depth, and experience on the 2008 Gamecock defense, will they live up to the hype and perform like one of the top defenses in the SEC this season?
Jonathan Jolley: Steve Spurrier and Ellis Johnson have expressed a cautious sense of optimism all preseason about the Gamecocks' chances of fielding an elite defense this fall, but they've also warned that the star-studded unit, while talented, hasn't proven anything yet.
With ten starters returning on defense, including four preseason All-SEC selections and three returning freshman All-SEC performers from a year ago, the 2008 Gamecock defense has all-conference talent on every level of the defense and is easily the most talented unit in recent memory at South Carolina. The defense will also feature more depth and experience than many previous years. The keys for Johnson's defense to live up to the hype and produce as one of the top units in the SEC will be to master the new scheme, play a more physical brand of football, show significant improvement against the run, and equally as important - stay healthy.
While there's no way to know for sure if all of those things will fall into place, there's a reasonable expectations that the first three keys will, judging from USC's play in practice throughout the spring and into fall camp. As for the final key, if the defense can stay relatively healthy and avoid the key injuries that plagued them last season, this unit should live up to the hype and finish the season as one of the top four defenses in the league and thus one of the top defenses in the nation.
There will always be nagging injuries as that is the nature of the game, but USC needs to avoid the dreaded "big blow." If that happens, then the defense will finish in the top 5 in the SEC. Being fifth in a 12-team league may not sound like much, but Ellis Johnson's Mississippi State unit finished fifth in total defense last season in the SEC which put them at 21st nationally. After a recent practice Spurrier mentioned the defense needs to finish in the top half of the conference in most categories for them to "have a chance" this year. I believe they will do just that.
Christopher Wellbaum: The only possible reason Carolina should struggle on defense is if the players are slow to pick up on Johnson's scheme. However, coaches and players all say the transition has been smooth and there should be no confusion when they line up against NC State. The Gamecocks have one shut down corner (Captain Munnerlyn), three solid corners behind him, a pair of proven safeties (Stewart and Emmanuel Cook) plus a talented young safety (Culliver), a pair of all-conference linebackers (Norwood and Brinkley), and talent on the defensive line. So they should dominate, right?
Wrong. To quote Steve Spurrier, "Experience doesn't matter when you can't stop anybody." There is individual talent, but something was missing from the unit. Spurrier is hoping it was the coordinator, and that is why he replaced Tyrone Nix. Fans may find this hard to believe, but Nix is a good coach; there is a reason he moved straight into another job. So to think the coaching change will result in a complete turnaround is a little much to ask. The defense will improve under Johnson and could easily win a game or two for Carolina, but it will not be one of the top two or three units in the SEC.
To discuss this article, visit GamecockAnthem's premium forum - The Golden Spur.