COLUMBIA — South Carolina had some down time in December before it played Michigan in the Outback Bowl, and defensive end Chaz Sutton used some of it to ponder what he saw on his game film during the season.
Considering Sutton was a backup defensive end, he had a fairly productive year — the best of his career, at least statistically. He finished with seven tackles for loss, including five sacks, and two forced fumbles. Sutton’s primary role came in USC’s rabbits package, which uses four defensive ends at once in pass rushing situations, usually on third downs.
As Sutton reviewed his 2012 game film, he knew Devin Taylor’s departure after the season would result in Sutton being a starter for the first time in 2013. So Sutton critiqued himself hard, and noticed he could have made more plays than he did.
Sometimes he read the wrong “key” in the offensive alignment, which lets defensive linemen know where their first move should be. Sometimes he took the wrong steps. Sometimes he was just caught unaware of the situation.
He has one more season to make those plays, because he will be a fifth-year senior this fall. If he grasps the new approach used by first-year defensive line coach Deke Adams and takes advantage of double teams that opponents will throw at USC’s other end, All-American Jadeveon Clowney, Sutton could eclipse his career numbers to this point — 11½ tackles for loss and six sacks.
Even if most college football observers outside South Carolina couldn’t name the Gamecocks’ other defensive end, Sutton is a familiar face at USC. He originally signed in the Class of 2008 as the nation’s sixth-ranked weakside end, according to Rivals. He attended prep school that fall, then redshirted as a freshman in 2009. He will turn 24 in September.
Sutton, who is 6-5 and 256 pounds, almost certainly will not be a first-round NFL draft pick next spring, unlike Clowney, who is projected to go No. 1. But because Clowney’s talent is so rare — and because Sutton possesses enough of his own to have played every game the past two seasons as a reserve — Sutton could have a productive final season.
Sutton said frequent double-teaming of Clowney “opens up a lot for me, because I think a lot of teams are going to try to slide to his side, and they might leave me one-on-one with a (running) back or a tight end. So it’s going to be helpful a lot.”
Adams replaced Brad Lawing, who left for a similar job at Florida after last season. At North Carolina, Adams favored an assertive approach that differed from Lawing’s teaching points. Adams is now implementing his plan.
“In the past, with things they’ve done (under Lawing), they’ve been so gap controlled that they just stay in their gap and the ball comes to them,” Adams said. “Well, I want to be aggressive and get up the field and go get the ball and not just wait and sit and let it come to me.”
Said Sutton: “It’s more freelance or free-wheeling than just playing a gap and trying to make the play off wherever the running back flows to.”
Not that Lawing’s style was ineffective. South Carolina last season ranked sixth nationally with 43 sacks. In 2011, USC finished 25th with 31. Of course, this doesn’t mean the Gamecocks can’t have similar sack numbers with Adams, since Clowney was responsible for 21 of those 74 sacks over the past two seasons.
Though Adams said he is giving his players “a little bit more freedom” to play aggressively, he emphasized that his approach isn’t exactly freelancing. He still wants his linemen to mind their gaps. But Adams understands this is all new for the Gamecocks’ linemen. Because he wants them to surge into the backfield and adjust their position once they get there, Adams has spent a lot of spring practices working on change-of-direction drills.
“Once you get up the field, sometimes you’re going to end up out of position,” Adams said. “And you’re going to have to stick your foot in the ground and you’re going to have to change directions and you’re going to have to make plays moving side to side. It’s a little different, but they’re catching on to it.”