COLUMBIA — Hot seats and cold votes of “confidence” come with a college football November. If prestigious Southern Cal, Texas and Florida start looking for new head coaches soon, dominoes will fall all the way into Wyoming’s 6-man high school leagues.
Which means Lorenzo “Whammy” Ward might go from recruiter to recruited. The 46-year-old South Carolina defensive coordinator, a persistent man with infectious enthusiasm, certainly deserves serious inquiry.
The Gamecocks are 21-4 with Ward in charge of the defense going into No. 10 South Carolina’s regular-season finale Saturday night against No. 6 Clemson in Columbia.
Ward and his fast-paced, tenacious style have fared well against counterparts often mentioned for head coach jobs. That includes Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, whose Tigers lost 27-17 to the Gamecocks at Death Valley last year.
“I think we have several assistants that could be excellent head coaches, and certainly Lorenzo Ward is very capable also,” South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier said Tuesday. “Yeah, I would say he’s probably getting ready.”
Another win over Clemson.
An SEC Championship Game appearance.
Something like that might seal the deal.
One early season rating of college football’s best offensive coordinators had Morris No. 3 and Georgia’s Mike Bobo No. 5.
South Carolina held Clemson to 328 yards and 20:02 of possession time last season. Ward’s tactics: doubling up on Clemson receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins to take away quarterback Tajh Boyd’s favorite weapons on his initial reads. Other teams tried that, but didn’t have Jadeveon Clowney (4.5 sacks) chasing Boyd, or a safety as capable as D.J. Swearinger to sit on slot receivers.
The strategy worked to near perfection after the Tigers took a 14-7 lead in the first quarter.
South Carolina lost at Georgia, 41-30, this season. But Ward looked very smart in a 35-7 win over the Bulldogs last year.
“I think he’ll be a great head coach,” said senior cornerback Jimmy Legree, a Beaufort High School graduate. “He chose to be a defensive coordinator. He likes it. … I’m thankful for him to be here.”
Ward also has performed admirably in head-to-head matchups against some of the highest paid defensive coordinators, including Clemson’s Brent Venables, Georgia’s Todd Grantham and Michigan’s Greg Mattison.
The Ward resume shines. He played at Alabama, coached for seven seasons under Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, worked in the NFL for Al Davis as an Oakland Raiders assistant coach, spent one year on Bobby Petrino’s staff at Arkansas and served under defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson at South Carolina.
No doubt, Ward fell into some talent when he took over at South Carolina for Johnson between the 2011 victory over Clemson and a 30-13 win over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl.
Swearinger, defensive end Devin Taylor and linebacker DeVonte Holloman were selected in the 2012 NFL draft. Clowney should be among the first two or three picks this spring, and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles projects as an early round choice.
“I’ve been blessed to get to coach some great guys,” Ward said.
But it hasn’t been easy this season.
Ward had to break up a scuffle between assistant coaches Deke Adams and Kirk Botkin at Georgia on Sept. 7.
Clowney, for all the preseason Heisman hype, has underachieved — two total sacks. Ward said he was “totally surprised” when Clowney told the coaching staff just prior to the Oct. 5 Kentucky game he was sitting out.
That was one week after Clowney complained immediately following the Gamecocks’ 28-25 victory at Central Florida on Sept. 28.
“We aren’t the same team as we were last year,” he said of the defense.
Clowney was right. But Whammy Ward didn’t get his fierce nickname from some silly cartoon character.
Well, actually he did, when a friend thought he resembled the Whammy co-star from the old “Press Your Luck” TV game show. But the tag really stuck when Ward was a player at Alabama and made a tackle that got head coach Bill Curry to exclaim about the “whammed” ballcarrier.
So no surprise that this younger, less talented Gamecock defense made strides at linebacker and in the secondary over the last month. Four straight wins, all four holding the opposition to 17 points or less during regulation.
South Carolina is third in the SEC in total defense, behind only Alabama and Florida.
That’s more yards allowed (344.4 to 315.5) but a better ranking than last year, when the Gamecocks were fourth in the SEC. Easier schedule or not, it’s a credit to Ward’s patience, his ability to adjust and knack for bringing inexperienced players along quickly.
Just what you want in a good head coach.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff