QUESTION: Would you say the defense is the overall strength of this team and how important is it for the Gamecocks to have a great game defensively?
ANSWER: The South Carolina defense has indeed been the strength of the team this season. The defense has carried the load in narrow, low-scoring victories over N.C. State, Ole Miss, and Vanderbilt this year. While they have not been quite as stout against the run as last season, the Gamecock defense ranks fourth in the SEC in total defense (289 ypg), fifth in scoring defense (17.5 ppg), and second in pass defense (141 ypg).
QUESTION: Who makes the biggest impact on your defense other than Eric Norwood?
ANSWER: Defensive end Cliff Matthews has had a breakout junior season, and he has given the Gamecocks another dynamic pass rusher to complement Eric Norwood. Matthews ranks third in the SEC with five sacks and is tied for second in the league with eight tackles for loss. He has been arguably as valuable to the Gamecock defense as Eric Norwood this season, and that's saying a lot. Matthews always plays at full speed, is excellent in pursuit, and is putting together an All-SEC type season at defensive end.
QUESTION: Will the Gamecocks load the box to stop the run and make Jonathan Crompton beat them?
ANSWER: I expect the Gamecocks to creep the safeties down at times to try and take away the Vols' running game, but Coach Ellis Johnson's defense is one of the most multiple units in the SEC. They will throw a variety of looks at Tennessee on Saturday night in an effort to keep the Vols' offense off balance. In a perfect world, the defense would certainly prefer to force Jonathan Crompton into a lot of throwing situations, rather than letting UT pile up yardage on the ground. It will be an interesting chess match to watch when the Vols' offense and the Gamecock defense go head-to-head on Saturday.
QUESTION: What's been the biggest surprise this season on the defensive side of the ball?
ANSWER: The biggest surprise on defense this season has been the tremendous play by USC's young defensive backs. South Carolina lost All-SEC corner Captain Munnerlyn and All-SEC safety Emanuel Cook to the NFL following last season, and senior corners Stoney Woodson and Carlos Thomas exhausted their eligibility. That left USC with a lot of holes to fill, and mostly young players to fill them with heading into this season.
Talented sophomore Akeem Auguste, true freshman phenom Stephon Gilmore, and emerging sophomore C.C. Whitlock have solidified the cornerback rotation for the Gamecocks, and savvy true freshman DeVonte Holloman has added quality depth behind the veteran safety tandem of Darian Stewart and Chris Culliver. The secondary, which was thought to be a big question mark at the beginning of the year, now ranks third nationally in pass defense, only surrendering 141 yards per game through the air.
QUESTION: Do you think the Vols will be able to have success in the running game against SC?
ANSWER: Tennessee has one of the better rushing attacks in the SEC, and the Gamecocks have shown some vulnerability against the run. I believe Tennessee will find some success on the ground, but I don't expect them to gash the Gamecock defense like Alabama did a couple of weeks ago. The keys will be tackling well and not letting UT's talented backfield tandem of Montario Hardesty and Bryce Brown turn medium gains into costly long runs.
QUESTION: If there is a weakness on the defensive side of the ball, what is it for SC?
ANSWER: South Carolina's strengths on defense are rushing the passer and defending the pass, but the "D" has shown some vulnerability against the run. The Gamecocks rank eighth in the SEC in rush defense, surrendering 148 yards per game on the ground. Much of that has come from poor tackling, and the Gamecocks will need to wrap up and play good assignments football against the Vols on Saturday night.