COLUMBIA — It is common practice for college football coaches to spend part of the summer traveling the country, seeking new ideas. Some visit with friends at other colleges who they aren’t going to play. Others make pilgrimages to NFL teams. All of them hope to gain any advantage, however small, that they can use during the season.
So it was that Lorenzo Ward, preparing for his first season as South Carolina’s defensive coordinator, found himself in Jacksonville for three days, observing Mel Tucker, who is entering his fourth season as the Jaguars’ defensive coordinator.
When Ward met with his players before Friday’s first preseason practice, he told them something important he noticed about Tucker’s approach.
“He never coached anything technique and fundamentals,” Ward said after practice. “That’s what he paid the position coaches to do. But he coached effort. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to be an effort coach.”
Ward, USC’s former defensive backs coach, spent much of Friday’s practice roaming the field, watching each of the three defensive position groups — secondary, linemen and linebackers. He offered an occasional pointer about pushing through your hips when attacking a blocking sled, but mainly left the hands-on instruction to his position coaches.
Ward had already delivered his most important message, during Friday’s third and final pre-practice meeting. He showed his players practice video of several NFL teams he visited. He pointed out that whenever a ball hit the ground, a defender scooped it up and ran for the end zone, even if the play was dead. Whenever a running back tucked the ball and ran with it, the defensive players tried to strip it, even in drills when the whistle blew on first contact.
“We’re going to practice the exact same way,” Ward said.
The plan confused USC’s offensive players at first during practice, as they no doubt wondered why the defenders kept sprinting toward the end zone long after a play ended.
“We set a pretty high number on turnovers, and we want to get it,” said senior spur outside linebacker DeVonte Holloman, though he wouldn’t reveal the specific goal. “And the only way to get it is to practice it.”
These defensive players, five new starters among them, are chasing the achievements of last season’s group, which ranked seventh nationally with 32 turnovers forced and third at 267.7 yards allowed per game. The success contributed to defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson being named Southern Mississippi’s head coach.
Despite USC’s dominance in 2011 under Johnson, Ward wants to adjust, with style rather than alignment. He plans to blitz more with his linebackers instead of just his defensive linemen, which Johnson preferred. Holloman will be a bigger part of the pass-rush game than last season’s spur, Antonio Allen. Ward envisions a noticeable change from Johnson’s system.
“I hope we’ll be a lot more exciting,” he said. “Not that coach Johnson’s defense was dull or not exciting, but we want to play more up-tempo.”
No one will question that USC played extraordinarily at times under Johnson, an easygoing 60-year-old who has coordinated defenses at Mississippi State, Alabama and Clemson. Ward is 15 years younger, and his only coordinator experience is at Tennessee-Chattanooga from 1998-99. But the Gamecocks believe they can continue to thrive with his new ways.
“Coach Johnson was a little bit more laid-back until something happened,” Holloman said. “Coach Ward is fiery all the time. He brings a lot of energy and it rubs off on all of us.”
Friday saw the return of junior running back Marcus Lattimore to the practice fields. Lattimore suffered a season-ending knee injury midway through the 2011 season … Reserve quarterback Tanner McEvoy practiced Friday and is back with the team after a suspension that lasted less than a week. He was arrested Sunday in North Carolina and charged with speeding and driving after consuming alcohol while under 21. USC coach Steve Spurrier said he won’t suspend McEvoy for any games. “You want him suspended for having a beer and he’s underage?” Spurrier said. “How many football players would be playing if they had a beer and they were underage?” … USC’s Board of Trustees on Friday approved a five-year contract for new baseball coach Chad Holbrook that pays him $400,000 a year. He was promoted after Ray Tanner became USC’s athletic director.