Coaching unity a major contributor to Gamecocks' defensive harmony
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Cohesion's a funny thing in the world of college football coaching.
With assistants on the move every single year in dizzying fashion, it's difficult to reach any level of unity on a staff. Once you get it, it's even tougher to keep it.
That's why this means something: South Carolina's defense is in the midst of a harmonic heyday.
How so? Well, good luck finding any staff in America that features three generations of direct player-coach relationships.
What's that mean? Here, follow along.
Ellis Johnson was a young assistant coach at Alabama in the early 1990s
when Lorenzo Ward played for the Crimson Tide.
Nearly a decade later, Ward was a young assistant who went to Virginia Tech to find Shane Beamer, who was a senior receiver playing for his dad and the Hokies.
A decade later at USC, that's three-quarters of a defensive coaching staff that led an incredibly young, injury-depleted and suspension-riddled group that finished in the top three in the SEC.
Johnson is the second-year defensive head coach who's focused on stopping the run. Ward is the first-year defensive coordinator who locks in on stopping the pass. Beamer is the third-year assistant who shepherds the team's strong safeties and spurs.
"You want to like the people that you're spending a ridiculous amount of time with each year," Beamer said. "That's huge. It's gone a long way toward our success this year."
And Brad Lawing is the other member, a character of a defensive line coach who seems to know everyone in the college coaching world.
"We all four get along just really, really well," Ward said. "We meet, and we've all got input. We do a good job of making it work. We're on the same page, and we convey it to the players."
South Carolina finished third in the league in total defense. Behind SEC stalwarts Florida and Alabama. That's not too bad.
USC coach Steve Spurrier has always been a coach to hire good defensive minds and let them work while he tinkers with his offense.
After things "weren't working out" with Tyrone Nix, Spurrier eventually went to Johnson, the Winnsboro native who's held all sorts of jobs in the state (including Citadel head coach).
Johnson kept the defensive staff, including Beamer, who's held all sorts of roles in his three seasons.
When a position opened, it didn't require a lot of thought to know that Johnson would go after Ward.
Their bond was formed at Alabama, when Ward, after his playing career, returned as a grad assistant.
That just so happened to be the year that Johnson was in and out of practice as he battled cancer.
"I respect the way he handles his business, even with how he fought against Hodgkin's cancer," Ward said. "What we do, it's a lot about life. How he handles himself goes a long way in the coaching world."
On the days when the chemotherapy proved too much, Ward pitched in to coach Johnson's linebackers.
"He wasn't a gopher by any stretch of the imagination," Johnson said. "With the freedom he got, he got to the point where he could coach them just as well. But we'd never worked again together."
There were near-misses, though. In 1999, a season that ended with a run to the national championship game, Virginia Tech needed an assistant. The Hokies called Johnson about another Alabama assistant, his good friend Charlie Harbison.
If Virginia Tech hired Harbison, Johnson would hire Ward from Tennessee-Chattanooga. But the Hokies went for Ward instead.
After Sylvester Croom's staff at Mississippi State was fired following the 2007 season, Johnson latched on at Arkansas. He also got Ward a job.
But Brian VanGorder didn't work out at USC, and Spurrier came after Johnson. With a chance to move home, Ward understood Johnson's decision.
"Ellis and I understand each other," Ward said. "He's got a great mind for defenses. I'm continuing to learn from him. We work well together."
It's not just an emotional thing, though. Ward knows his football. His track record of turning Virginia Tech DBs into pros spoke volumes upon his arrival at USC.
"When you talk about him, kids know coaches and know NFL players," Beamer said. "I think that brings instant credibility in the eyes of those players."
With a focus on the team's cornerbacks, Ward had a rotation that consisted of two sophomores (starter Akeem Auguste, C.C. Whitlock) and two true freshmen (starter Stephon Gilmore, D.J. Swearinger). And they performed highly on a national level.
"I think he's been good for those young ones, fundamentally and technique," Johnson said. "I think he's been a tremendous teacher to them."
The defensive players see that there's a good union between their coaches.
There's a workmanlike mentality amongst them, but there's also an air of -- gasp -- fun.
"That's the difference. We had the most fun since I've been here. We're talking more, communicating more," said defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye, a junior. "We're just doing better than we've ever done before."
Florida's defense was the best in the league in 2009 because it returned, in a true oddity, all 22 players from its two-deep roster.
South Carolina in 2010? The Gamecocks figure to return 19 of 22, losing tackle Nate Pepper, linebacker Eric Norwood and safety Darian Stewart.
Perhaps the unity will continue?
"I feel like we've done a decent job this season," Ward said. "I hope we continue to get better."