COLUMBIA -- As it's seemingly been every week for the past month, South Carolina's secondary is at a crossroads.
But, with senior corner Chris Culliver lost for the season and the nation's No. 2 passing offense coming to town this week, it's a particularly trying week for that group of Gamecocks.
"We're the weakness of the defense, is basically what everybody's saying," safety Akeem Auguste said. "At the same time, we still feel like we're the best. We've had a couple of bad games, but who's better than us?"
Statistically, everyone in the SEC. The Gamecocks are currently 12th (last) in the league, giving up 259.9 passing yards a game.
That's with Ryan Mallett and an Arkansas offense averaging an SEC-best 360.2 passing yards a game.
"We're going to have to be on our 'A' game if we're going to have success against their passing game," said cornerbacks coach Lorenzo Ward, who previously worked at Arkansas.
Ward also said the Razorbacks are "the most complete group of receivers we've faced all season, from top to bottom." He said that even with the knowledge that the Hogs' top receiver, Greg Childs (659 yards, six touchdowns), is now out for the year with a knee injury.
"They've still got a lot of great players," Ward said.
The team's No. 2 receiver, Joe Adams, is not a given to play, because of an ankle injury. Even with the receivers out of sorts, Mallett still managed a school-record 409 yards last week against Vanderbilt.
"We can't let him sit back and make all his throws. He can sit back there and make throws with the best of them," Auguste said. "If we can keep him moving and running around and stuff, it's going to be harder for him to complete a lot of passes."
The passing defense was under similar scrutiny after a particularly bad second half at Kentucky -- one that ended with a coverage breakdown on fourth down, yielding a 24-yard touchdown for Randall Cobb.
There was a vow to play more man coverage, and it was success, mostly, against a vertically challenged Vanderbilt offense.
But Tennessee, despite offensive struggles most of the season, was able to take advantage of the Gamecocks, particularly in man coverage. Denarius Moore had 228 yards, the most by any receiver this year in FBS.
Purposefully or no, the Volunteers baited the Gamecocks. In previous games, Ward said the Tennessee receivers had been cutting their routes off at the first-down marker. Against the Gamecocks, they stopped there -- and then took off, duping USC with double moves.
"I preached all week, 'We're going to stay at the sticks, stay at the sticks,'" Ward said. "They did a good job of coming into the game and changing it up a little bit.
"You're going to get beat sometimes on double moves. But, still, we should've been a lot closer in coverage."
As for Culliver, it's a sad ending to a career that was all over the map. The Garner, N.C., native, a five-star prospect according to some analysts, played receiver his freshman season before easing over to safety.
He moved to cornerback this year, struggling at times and playing well at others.
"I wish Cully the best. That was my man," Auguste said. "But we've got to win. We've got to get to Atlanta."
With a win at Florida in two weeks, presuming the Gators don't lose this week to Vanderbilt, South Carolina would notch its first berth in the SEC title game. But the Gamecocks would like to get well in the defensive backfield first.
C.C. Whitlock, walk-on Marty Markett and Jimmy Legree are the players that will step in for Culliver.
"I feel good about them," Ward said. "C.C.'s got a lot of experience. He's played a lot last season and has this season. I feel good about him. Marty's shown that he can help this team on special teams, so we'll see what he can do on defense."
Additionally, defensive assistant Shane Beamer said the Gamecocks want to find someone to sometimes spell DeVonte Holloman at strong safety. Holloman has played every snap the past three games, Beamer said.
"He's pretty good early," he said, "and I think he does get worn down a little bit,"
Auguste will start at free safety, Ward said, allowing D.J. Swearinger to rotate in at free safety and strong safety.
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