ORLANDO, Fla. - Lorenzo Ward thought everything had to be perfect. Each player, like each piece on a chess board, had an exact position on the field. It was his job to get them there.
That's how Ward always envisioned being a defensive coordinator as he climbed the coaching ladder. Given the keys to South Carolina's defense before the 2012 Capital One Bowl, the first-time coordinator recognized his power.
It drove his players nuts.
Ward's meticulous perfectionism slowed communication to a halt early in the 2012 Capital One Bowl against Nebraska. He waited to see how the Cornhuskers lined up before sending a play from the coaches booth to field level. With players learning where to be moments before the snap, they had no chance.
Nebraska marched down the field for touchdowns on their first two possessions, taking a lead into the second quarter. After the second touchdown, senior defensive tackle Travian Robinson marched to the sideline and grabbed a headset.
"I got the call in late several times, and it affected the team," Ward said. "So he got on the headset. He called up to the booth and he said, 'There's no such thing as a perfect call, Coach Ward. Give us the defense.' After that, we shut them down. (Nebraska did not score again).
"That really made me grow and trust the players more. Instead of me trying to put them in position to make a play by putting the right call and the right defense, let them make plays."
Ward said he'll never forget that quick lecture from Robinson. Two years later, he can't help but chuckle.
Memories surround South Carolina's defensive coordinator this week. He can't escape them, whether it's on the practice field at a local high school in Orlando, in the team hotel or talking with the media.
It's been two years since Ward replaced Ellis Johnson as the Gamecocks' sole defensive coordinator. His second anniversary will be spent back at the Capital One Bowl, where it all began. Ward said the return trip to Orlando has been surreal.
"In fact, my first press conference was two years ago at this same table," Ward said Monday during a coordinators' news conference in a second-floor suite at the Rosen Plaza Hotel.
Ward credits his position coaches and players for the defense's success, as a leader should. Clearly, the 46-year-old from Alabama has left his imprint on South Carolina's defensive accomplishments.
The patience and trust Ward learned to have with players in his first game on the job was never tested more than this season. With a young defense - the Gamecocks' leading tackler is a true freshman - Ward knew there would be inconsistencies and growing pains. Through a rocky September, he never wavered.
"I felt like the D-line didn't trust that the linebackers would be where they needed to be, and the secondary was trying to overcompensate," Ward said. "So when we sat down and started looking at the video, I told them each week in our team meeting on Monday, 'I think we're getting closer. We're getting there. We've just got to stay together. We've got to get all 11 to take care of their assignments, and we'll become a decent defense.' "
Ward has tinkered with the lineup, pulling starting jobs when necessary. He's used positive reinforcement, showing patience when required. Each button he's pushed has seemed to work.
Improvements have been slow, but also steady. The Gamecocks clawed their way to "competency," as Ward put it. They rank second in the SEC allowing 20 points per game and third with 345 yards per game. Now, there seems to be no weakness. South Carolina's rush defense ranks second in the league with 142.25 yards allowed per game, while its pass defense ranks fourth with 202.8 yards per game.
Senior defensive end Chaz Sutton credits Ward.
"It's been all about growth," Sutton said. "He came in with a plan, and he gave it to us. And as a group, we executed it, and then it works for us for the past couple of years. We're one of the top defenses in our conference, and he was doing a great job collectively."
The first signs of growth this season came during practice in South Carolina's seven-on-seven drills. Ward noticed more gap integrity, players trusting their teammates to handle their responsibilities instead of trying to do too much on their own.
It was another reminder of what was learned the last time South Carolina played in the Capital One Bowl. Ward can exercise his power, make decisions that affect everything from where a player will line up to how they'll perceive a play. Ultimately, it's up to the player to make the right decisions.
It's Ward's job to let them make plays.
"God blessed me and gave me an opportunity, and so far I think we've done fairly well," Ward said. "I think I've lost four ballgames as a coordinator. So if we can keep that going, keep that record going, I think I'll be a coordinator for a while."