The Daily Gamecock

Secondary expects to be more physical, aggressive


Even now, few know what to make of the Gamecock secondary’s perplexing 2014 season.

Statistically, the passing totals aren't bad. South Carolina gave up 220.5 yards per game through the air. Opposing quarterbacks threw just 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions against the Gamecocks, but it still seemed that opposing teams' offenses moved the ball at will through the air. 

The Gamecocks only recorded 14 sacks last season, leaving their secondary in a precarious position much of the time. 

South Carolina picked off 11 passes last season, but only one of those was by a player on this year’s secondary. The Gamecocks lost starting cornerback Brison Williams to the NFL and safety Sharrod Golightly transferred out of the program following the 2014 season. 

However, the Gamecocks now have essentially two secondary coaches — Co-defensive coordinators Jon Hoke and Lorenzo Ward. Both have extensive backgrounds as secondary coaches. 

Hoke was hired after spending five years with the Chicago Bears as the defensive backs coach. 

In Hoke’s system, the secondary plays zone coverage almost exclusively. Last season, the young secondary, most of whom were recruited by Ward to play man coverage, played zone coverage to combat a weak pass rush. 

Hoke’s system calls for athletic corners and physical safeties. The Gamecocks have both. 

Redshirt junior Rico McWilliams returns as a starter at the right corner position. McWilliams started six games a season ago and was credited with five pass breakups. At 5-foot-11, McWilliams is on the shorter side of the spectrum where Hoke is concerned. He has had a quiet fall, but has never really been in jeopardy of losing his starting job. 

One of the bigger surprises on the depth chart for the North Carolina game is redshirt junior Chaz Elder. A backup safety for much of last season, Elder is slotted as the starter at left corner. Few even knew the 6-foot-2, 209-pounder was practicing with the cornerbacks, let alone fighting for a starting position. 

While the transition to corner is due in large part to a backlog at safety, Elder’s athleticism and stature sets him apart from some of the other corners. 

“He’s a good athlete and obviously you like his height and his length,” Hoke said of Elder. “We wanted to see what he looked like [at cornerback]. We knew we had Isaiah Johnson coming in [to play safety].” 

Elder jumped sophomore Chris Lammons on the depth chart, though Lammons had one of the better camps of any defender. Since most teams in the SEC now run spread offenses, the athletic corner will get the opportunity to play often. More accustomed to man coverage, Lammons has adjusted well and his good technique should allow him to cover slot receivers. 

The Gamecocks have gotten bigger at both safety positions in an attempt to become more physical on the back end. Converted Spur Jordan Diggs moved to strong safety early in the spring and immediately set himself apart. 

Transfer Isaiah Johnson graduated from Kansas and was granted immediate eligibility under the NCAA’s graduate transfer exemption. Johnson finished last season as the Jayhawks’ second-leading tackler and finished second in the Big 12 with five interceptions in 2013. 

This year’s secondary may be the deepest position group on the entire team. Ward tried a number of combinations in the secondary last season, allowing many defensive backs to get meaningful game experience.

Expect a more physical and athletic secondary this season. With Hoke calling the shots, the defensive backs will be much more aggressive. Hoke loves to send pressure from the back and wants his defensive backs to play the run as effectively as they do the pass. 

The Gamecock secondary has been arguably the best position group under head coach Steve Spurrier. Even if they do not quite reach that distinction this year, the back end of the defense will be substantially better this season under the guidance of Ward and Hoke.