Head coach Will Muschamp and defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson are known for their proficiency in coaching cornerbacks and safeties.
The duo coached talented secondaries in their tenures at Florida. Defensive backs Vernon Hargreaves III, Keanu Neal, Jalen Tabor, Quincy Wilson and Marcus Maye harassed SEC offenses, and were molded into first and second round draft picks in the process.
The secondary was a weakness for the Gamecocks in 2014 and 2015, but in year one, Muschamp and Robinson were able to get the Gamecocks from 64th to 42nd nationally in passing yards allowed. Now, the secondary is a year older, more versatile and has added several young, gifted players from the 2017 class.
One of those young players is cornerback Jamyest Williams, who was the crown jewel of the Gamecocks’ 2017 recruiting class. Williams had offers from a majority of major programs in the country. He ultimately decided to stick with the Gamecocks after a late push by SEC rival, Georgia. During his recent media availability, Robinson was asked about Williams and where he would play.
“A really good, talented player,” Robinson said of Williams. “We’re playing him at multiple spots right now.”
Robinson did concede that Williams has primarily been playing at the nickel position. Keisean Nixon and Tavyn Jackson are two other newcomers from the 2017 class who are expected to play a significant number of snaps this season. Jackson was an unheralded recruit from Florida, but the coaches are excited about his potential. He has been fighting off nagging injuries throughout fall camp which has hindered his development.
"...Because of our numbers he’s going to have to play...,” Muschamp said. “He’s a guy we’re still counting on.”
Muschamp had to fend off Tennessee, Georgia, UCLA and others to sign the highly-coveted junior college prospect Nixon. Nixon was a star during his two years at JUCO powerhouse Arizona Western College, recording 11 interceptions in his short time there. It took longer than the coaches hoped, but he finally made it to campus in early August. He’s a versatile player that the coaches are cross training for both safety and corner.
Asked about Nixon, Robinson said, “He’s a really good player...He’s got a good skillset.”
Nixon is cross training for both corner and safety, but if he wants to see the field early, then he should aim for safety. This is because Muschamp stated without hesitation that Jamarcus King and Rashad Fenton would be the starting cornerbacks during his post-scrimmage press conference on Aug. 19.
Fenton started seven games and King started 11 games last year, which provides key experience for a critical position. King said the Gamecocks would be playing a lot of press man coverage this year, which requires very technically sound play from the secondary. It is a high-risk, high-reward style of defense that can only be successfully run when safeties come in and save any mistakes made by the cornerbacks.
Due to shoulder nerve damage, the Gamecocks will be without freshman Jaylin Dickerson, a player Muschamp praised this spring. That means the defensive staff will have to rely on versatile guys like Chris Lammons and Nixon, in addition to veterans like D.J. Smith and Steven Montac to fill out the starting and rotational roles at the safety positions. Lammons started every game for the Gamecocks last season. Though he mainly played at corner and nickel last year, this year he’s been pegged a safety for the time being.
“Right now he’s playing safety,” Muschamp said. “He would be our third corner, and probably our third nickel depending on what package we are in.”
Smith and Montac are going to have an impact at the safety position as well. Smith is a senior who led the team in tackles last season. His experience and leadership will be a huge asset in Muschamp’s second year. Montac is a walk-on who is expected to come off the bench this year and at least match last year’s 39 tackles. Keeping players like Montac healthy is crucial for Muschamp and Robinson this year.
They said they like the players they have, but depth is concerning for the secondary, especially at corner. The coaches are hoping cross training players for multiple positions and managing the rotation will be enough to keep this talented secondary in tact for the duration of the season.