COLUMBIA -- In August, the defensive backfield was seemingly the least of South Carolina's concerns. The Gamecocks returned essentially everyone from a secondary that finished eighth in the country in pass defense.
Through half a season, and after a horrifying finish at Kentucky, it's a different story.
South Carolina is currently ranked 110th in pass defense, giving up 270.8 yards a game through the air after six games. Consecutive passers, Alabama's Greg McElroy and Kentucky's Mike Hartline, have set career highs against the Gamecocks.
"Stats just aren't a big thing to me," said defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, who coaches USC's corners. "I just want us to play better. I want us to play with a lot more confidence. That's where we've got to get to. We've got to put them in those positions, better positions, as coaches. It's not just the kids' fault."
Defensive head coach Ellis Johnson intimated Saturday night that it's a back-to-the-drawing-board feeling for the Gamecocks' defense, and secondary in particular, after it allowed 21 second-half points in the Wildcats' comeback.
It wasn't the points total that was concerning, necessarily, so much as how the points were accrued. On numerous occasions throughout the night, South Carolina's soft zone coverage was too soft, allowing Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline to pick apart the USC defensive backs.
Go back a week, and South Carolina's coverage helped largely in the Gamecocks' seven sacks of McElroy in the upset of the then-No. 1 Crimson Tide.
"We just don't have consistency in coverage right now," Johnson said after the game. "We'll try to find the answer."
That process began Monday with the players. Ward said the Gamecocks had additional pass skeleton drills, just as much for the defensive backs as the team's offensive skill players.
There will also be a couple of philosophical changes moving forward, Ward said.
One is an increase in man coverage. It's more difficult to play, he said, but the zone has allowed for too many holes in coverage.
Turnovers, too, are more prevalent when defenses are in man coverage. The defensive backs are closer to the receivers, obviously, which results in more deflections and interceptions.
Why didn't South Carolina play more man on Saturday? Ward said several times Kentucky's combinations of personnel and formations forced on-the-field changes from man to zone coverage.
The Wildcats wanted to make the Gamecocks shift to that leaky zone, and they were successful.
That was a big part of the problem on third downs in the second half. After converting just 2 of 8 third downs in the first half, Kentucky picked up 7 of 11 in the second half.
"It was frustrating," defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye said, referring to the inability to get off the field. "You can only do what you're capable of doing, but it was frustrating to see the defense struggling like that. It happens, and hopefully we'll get that improved this week."
Still, as everyone knows, it's not as if South Carolina can play man coverage on every snap. Ward said the zone defense has to improve, as well.
The Gamecocks have been guilty of blown coverages in every game so far this season. The breakdown happened at the worst possible time against Kentucky: on a fourth-and-7 play that led to the 24-yard game-winning touchdown catch by Randall Cobb.
Miscommunication wasn't a huge problem during the Kentucky game, Ward said, but it was on that particular play.
What you might not have picked up on is the fact that the problem actually started with the corner position.
Stephon Gilmore, unsure of what the coverage was exactly, played well out of position against his receiver.
He was supposed to press and jam Chris Matthews at the line of scrimmage. By playing off him, that left safeties D.J. Swearinger and DeVonte Holloman confused. Gilmore was actually behind Swearinger when the play began.
Swearinger was supposed to have Cobb, the receiver in motion, if he went to the outside -- which he did. Holloman had him if he stayed toward the middle of the field.
The Gamecocks had three defenders to play against two receivers -- with the idea of doubling Cobb -- and yet all three stayed with Matthews and Cobb ran free to the end zone.
"We didn't come out in the second half like we did in the first half," Holloman said, still visibly upset after Monday's practice. "We're not jumping ship or pointing the finger at anybody or anything like that. We know we've got to work harder in practice and in games."
--The starting time for the Gamecocks' game in Columbia with Tennessee on Oct. 30 has been set for 12:21. It will be telecast by the SEC Network.
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