COLUMBIA -- Three weeks from the start of preseason camp, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson is sitting in his office assembling South Carolina's defense -- both in his mind and on tablets with scribbled X's, O's and lines that jut in every direction.
Johnson's defense had plenty of talent in 2010, but it finished seventh in the league, leaving something to be desired despite winning the SEC East.
The core returns in 2011, and there are newcomers such as Jadeveon Clowney to influence the group's direction. All of this is swirling in Johnson's head. The chess pieces are constantly moving around in his brain.
First, there's Clowney. Johnson is getting closer and closer -- preseason camp begins Aug. 3 -- to seeing the 6-6 specimen on the practice field for the first time.
He feels confident Clowney will have an impact as a freshman, and many across the country share the sentiment. But, like Marcus Lattimore a year ago, just how much will not be known until the season begins.
Johnson said Clowney will have his work cut out for him to get fifth-year senior Melvin Ingram off the field.
Ingram was third in the SEC with nine sacks last season.
"He's going to do something every day that makes someone go, 'Shoot, no one's doing that,' " Johnson said. "But, is he going to be an every-down, every-day player? Is he going to be able to learn it all? Can he pick up all our blitzes and do things that are not going to get us beat?
"I don't know where his learning curve is. I don't know where he is fundamentally."
One thing Clowney has working for him, Johnson said, is attitude. He said Clowney is not a prima donna in terms of work ethic -- or toughness.
"I've seen guys that don't go looking for contact," he said. "He ain't like that. He's an aggressive kid. With all the physical skills he's got, he loves contact. For that reason, I'm going to be shocked if he doesn't make his presence felt real quick."
Clowney is far from Johnson's biggest concern. No, held over from the spring, that would be the safety positions.
If he can "paint the picture the way it wants to paint it," D.J. Swearinger will be the starting strong safety and the guy who manned that spot the past year-plus, DeVonte Holloman, can move to spur linebacker, closer to the line of scrimmage.
But that's contingent on someone playing well enough at free safety to make the moves possible. Johnson said Jimmy Legree and Brison Williams have shown promise, but August is a crucial month for them -- and, subsequently, for all the other dominoes.
"If they continue to make improvement, now, I think we'll be fine," Johnson said. "But they've got to make improvement. We'll have time. DeVonte could make the move (back to strong safety) late and probably pick it right up."
Holloman would like to stay at spur. Johnson desires that, too. Holloman understands that it would be because of his versatility. Holloman played spur in the spring, and he has experience at both safety spots.
"I told him the other day, 'No move has been made because of what you can't do, but because of what you can do,' " Johnson said.
A possible wrench into any of those plans, though, is Holloman's status following a June DUI arrest. His matter has not been legally resolved, so he remains suspended from the team until it is.
In the same vein, cornerback Victor Hampton remains on some sort of conditional suspension after violating team rules. Provided he stays in line, the redshirt freshman would be reinstated by camp. Johnson said Hampton could provide important depth at corner, where Akeem Auguste, Stephon Gilmore and C.C. Whitlock form a veteran rotation.
Because of academic lapses, Hampton will miss practices -- and likely a game, or more.
Johnson has said the Gamecocks plan to employ a lot of three-man fronts against pass-happy East Carolina in the opener. But that's no big revelation, considering, as he says, USC has done that at least half the time when going against spread offenses.
The only difference in this 3-4 concept, he said, is the use of two spurs -- Holloman on one side and Antonio Allen on the other. That would increase speed and ball awareness as opposed to usage in previous years of ends Eric Norwood and Devin Taylor as the fourth linebacker.
And, again, Holloman's legal matter has to be factored in for the ECU game.