COLUMBIA — Since taking over as South Carolina’s defensive coordinator before last season’s bowl game, Lorenzo Ward has not changed the 4-2-5 structure of the Gamecocks’ defense, with its four defensive linemen, two linebackers and four defensive backs, plus the linebacker/safety hybrid position of spur outside linebacker.
Ward has, however, put his own stamp on the defense. He decided to blitz more aggressively and more often, with more than his linemen. He spent more time in spring and preseason practices teaching technique and fundamentals, including an increased emphasis on tackling drills.
That emphasis stems from Ward’s time at Virginia Tech. It was his first major conference job, and when he worked there from 1999-2005, he observed how heavily coach Frank Beamer and coordinator Bud Foster focused on fundamentals with their undersized defensive players in a 4-2-5 scheme.
The approach helped the Hokies reach the national title game after the 1999 season.
There are more highly regarded recruits on USC’s current defense than the Virginia 1999 Tech defense, but when Ward replaced Ellis Johnson after last season, he decided to adopt Beamer’s approach.
“We worked tackling drills every day,” said USC cornerback Jimmy Legree. “That’s not something we really did in the past. So that helped me out a lot.”
Like most teams, the Gamecocks don’t do a lot of full-speed tackling during spring or preseason practices. So last Thursday’s season opener at Vanderbilt “was our first time with the opportunity to judge how well we would tackle,” said Grady Brown, who took over for Ward as USC’s secondary coach.
For the most part, the Gamecocks did well, especially Legree, who is playing in place of the injured Akeem Auguste and had struggled with open-field tackling.
That skill will be tested to an even greater degree in Saturday’s home opener against East Carolina, whose up-tempo, spread-the-field offense relies on quick passes and is designed to put defenders in one-on-one matchups in open space.
“We’ve definitely got to play well in space,” Ward said. “It’ll put a lot of pressure on us, but hopefully we can take all the technique and fundamentals that we taught in spring and fall camp and utilize them.”
Not that his defensive backs always enjoyed those drills, but they understood their importance.
“A lot of times, a lot of us don’t want to do certain things in practice, but we have to tackle,” said free safety D.J. Swearinger. “If a linebacker or a defensive end misses a tackle, it’s six yards. If we miss it, it’s six points.”
With quarterback Connor Shaw still nursing a bruised right (throwing) shoulder, an injury sustained at Vanderbilt, USC might need to lean on its defense more than usual Saturday. Coach Steve Spurrier said on his radio show Thursday that trainers think Shaw has “a good chance of playing,” but the staff won’t officially determine his status until Saturday.
USC often won with its defense last season, particularly its pass defense, which ranked second nationally in yards allowed per game and tied for sixth in interceptions. The Gamecocks continued to rely on defense at Vanderbilt, where they won 17-13. Ward believes his secondary began this season ahead of where last season’s group started, mainly because of technical improvements. What happens against East Carolina could support that notion.
Brown said the Gamecocks’ secondary works open-field tackling drills every day “because that’s where we make our money. This will be a big weekend to go out and do what we work on every day in practice. We’re dealing with big-time athletes here. Imagine if you would combine a great car design and a great motor. That’s an awesome automobile. So that’s what we’re trying to do from a player standpoint. We have great physical talent. So now we have to combine that with great mental talent and fundamentals and techniques, and we can be pretty good.”