USC looks to improve secondary
COLUMBIA -- As football coach Steve Spurrier has repeatedly mentioned all summer, South Carolina, despite a division title, finished seventh in total defense and offense a year ago in the SEC.
As far as the defense goes, the secondary sure seemed to get the brunt of the blame from fans, reporters -- and even Spurrier, who pointed at third-down defense as a real point of concern in the offseason.
"It did seem like we got blamed a lot, didn't it?" said senior Akeem Auguste, who has bounced between cornerback and safety his entire USC career.
Critical breakdowns, including a memorable one that lost the Kentucky game in the final minutes, marred whatever good the team's defensive backs did in big victories against Alabama and Georgia.
"I cannot even explain what happened," Auguste said. "Things just didn't go our way. I feel like a lot of games were lost because of us."
The Gamecocks gave up 354.3 yards a game in 2010, 46th in the country. And 241.9 of those yards a game were through the air, 10th in the SEC and 97th in the country.
Defensive head coach Ellis Johnson has always been quick to defend the secondary, saying the pressure up front often never got there and the unit missed weak-side linebacker Shaq Wilson's headiness.
Still, the lapses were noticeable at every position in the secondary, and a major reason was because most of the defensive backs were playing out of position.
Auguste, a natural cornerback, was at free safety because Chris Culliver's balky shoulder would only allow him to play corner. Culliver is in an NFL camp and Auguste, dealing with a foot sprain currently, is back at corner.
He insisted he'll be fine for the Sept. 3 opener, and he said he already knocked off in the spring what little rust exists.
"Man, I've been here a while now," Auguste said. "Ain't nothing really new to me."
DeVonte Holloman was fine last year, for the most part, but Johnson has always held that Holloman was too big for the boundary safety. As a result, he was shifted to spur linebacker in the spring.
The change would take, though, only if someone emerged at free safety, allowing D.J. Swearinger to move into Holloman's old spot and Holloman to stay at his new one, nearer to the ball. "We want to be more physical," said Swearinger, who doesn't mind telling people he's the team's hardest hitter. "This is a way for us to be more physical, with those guys in those spots. I know I'm ready to hit and make plays."
But that still leaves the seemingly weak link at free safety, though teammates are positive about corner-turned-free Jimmy Legree's progress.
When Auguste and Swearinger are asked about Legree, they immediately mention the 5-11, 185-pound Beaufort native's range and length.
"Jimmy's one of those dudes that can drop his arms and scratch his knee without bending down," Auguste said. "That's what safeties need. He's picking it up. He'll be ready to go."
Swearinger also sees Legree as a more confident player. Legree made two interceptions in the spring game, in part because of an increased knowledge of the playbook. That's only taken hold more, now a week into preseason camp.
"He's made a lot of improvement," Johnson said this week. "We've still got a long way to go. But he has made a lot of improvement."
Throw on top of guys out of position that there was no backup for All-SEC corner Stephon Gilmore last season. The Gamecocks now seem to be building depth.
C.C. Whitlock is a career backup, but he has played plenty of big snaps at cornerback. Another corner, Victor Hampton, was nearly kicked off the team, but he is showing more maturity after an 11th-hour reprieve. Hampton would be Gilmore's backup, a "bonus," as Johnson calls him.
Newcomers Brison Williams, Sheldon Royster, Ahmad Christian and Martay Mattox have demonstrated some positives during camp, Johnson has said.
USC's passing defense in 2010
Yards per game: 241.9 -- 10th SEC, 97th NCAA
Passing TDs allowed: 23 -- 10th SEC
Interceptions: 10 -- 9th SEC, 79th NCAA
Third-down conversions: 40.4 percent -- 11th SEC, 67th NCAA