South Carolina football is set to open SEC play against No. 16 Arkansas on Saturday. Before taking the field, the Gamecocks are spending practice time improving its run defense.
“That’s one of our big goal points this week as a defense is flying to the ball," sixth year linebacker Brad Johnson said during the press conference on Sept. 6. "I feel like we did a decent job last week doing that, and I feel like even this week we are going to take it up a step.”
The Gamecocks struggled to stop the run early in its season opener against the Georgia State Panthers. During the team’s first drive, Georgia State picked up 67 yards on the ground, including a 41-yard rush on second and four.
The defense eventually settled in and slowed the Panthers' run game down. In the first quarter, Georgia State rushed for 77 yards. They averaged just above 42 rush yards per quarter for the rest of the game.
The team will face another run-heavy offense in the Razorbacks this week. Led by dual-threat junior quarterback KJ Jefferson, Arkansas’ offense will be a step up from what the Gamecocks experienced last week.
“They do a great job at coaching technique and fundamentals,” head coach Shane Beamer said. “They use tempo, so you got to be able to handle that, they’ll get in multiple formations, they've got motions ... you’ve got to be disciplined with your eyes against these guys because they are big and physical, but now they’re also going fast.”
In the game against Cincinnati on Sept. 3, the Razorbacks ran for 224 yards on 45 attempts. Sophomore running back Raheim Sanders rushed for 117 yards on 20 attempts, while Jefferson took off running 18 times for 62 yards and a touchdown.
“You got KJ who can run — he can pass too — so he’s good on both sides,” junior linebacker Mohamed Kaba said. “And you got a running back that’s good, has good balance, good power, good speed.”
Containing Sanders and keeping Jefferson in the pocket will be crucial if the Gamecocks want to leave Fayetteville with a win. The team is aware of this and is doing what it can in practice to prepare.
“In our indi drills we are using big dummies — big cylinder dummies — to try and work on our tackling,” Johnson said.
Keeping Jefferson still is easier said than done. The 6-foot-3, 242-pound quarterback led his team in rushing yards and finished 10th among all FBS quarterbacks in rushing yards last season with 664 yards.
“People just bounce off of him back there,” Beamer said.
Beamer said there is no perfect way to duplicate Jefferson’s size as a quarterback in practice. Instead, the team has been focused on the fundamentals.
“We’d have to take one of our defensive ends and make him a quarterback,” Beamer said. “For us, it’s just emphasizing 11 hats to the ball, game tackling and getting people around him.”
Redshirt junior quarterback Spencer Rattler’s own mobility has helped the defense prepare for Jefferson. Despite being 2 inches shorter and 27 pounds lighter, Rattler and Jefferson have similar duel-threat playstyles.
“We face that every day in practice,” Kaba said. “We just going to game plan against it and we’re going to be ready for him.”
The Gamecocks and Razorbacks are set to kick off from Fayetteville Saturday at noon.