The Daily Gamecock

How South Carolina can return to form


We all know that South Carolina's 7-6 2014 campaign was disappointing, but the question remains, "With five starters now in the NFL, how did the team falter?"

The answer is not necessarily limited to a single phase of the game, but it does start with the defensive line. The best defense for a suspect secondary is a consistent pass rush. Last season, the Gamecocks at times played three freshman at once in the defensive backfield.

Not lacking in talent, the defensive secondary struggled mightily with confidence. Young players are susceptible to getting burned on occasion, and the Gamecock secondary was timid last season without a pass rush to protect them.

An intimidating pass rush can cover up other weaknesses. However, because the Gamecocks struggled to get pressure up front, the defense was always on its heels. Cornerbacks that came out of press coverage schemes in high school were forced to play Cover 2.

Maybe the best example of this is last year’s Missouri game. Coming off their best defensive showing of the season against East Carolina, the Gamecocks were confident. Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward played press man coverage for the first three and a half quarters of the game.

The Gamecock defense gave up 171 total yards and seven points in that span. Up 14 points, however, the defense switched back to a more conservative Cover 2 scheme. Missouri scored touchdowns on their next two drives. The first included two passes of more than 25 yards — Missouri’s two longest plays of the game.

Most of South Carolina’s seemingly unrelated issues last season stemmed from a lackluster pass rush. Head coach Steve Spurrier lost faith in his defense midway through the season. The Gamecock offense began to gamble on fourth down more often due to a lack of faith in the defense.

Even career years by linebackers Skai Moore and Jonathan Walton were overshadowed by struggles on the defensive line. Walton exploded for 38 tackles in the team’s final five games. Moore led the team with 93 tackles, the most by a Gamecock in seven years.

The 2014 Gamecocks did not have any elite pass rushers like past squads. From 2010-2014 South Carolina had at least one defensive lineman drafted every season. Last year’s team simply lacked both the talent and the experience to put pressure on the quarterback.

With a new defensive coordinator, new scheme and two highly-rated defensive line transfers,this season’s defensive front looks more similar to the dominant lines of the early 2010s than last year’s.

The Gamecocks will rely heavily on junior college transfers Dante Sawyer and Marquavius Lewis to provide pressure. Sawyer will start at defensive tackle while Lewis will start at the the strongside defensive end position.

The key to the success of the defense starts and ends with the defensive line. If the Gamecock line can put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the defense should be a much improved unit.