Gene Sapakoff is the oldest, fastest, hardest-hitting sports journalist in S.C. As columnist at The Post and Courier he covers Clemson, South Carolina and other interesting things. He likes food and has won the prestigious Judson Chapman Award 3 times.

Clayton White (copy) (copy)

South Carolina finished sixth in the SEC in total defense in 2021, Clayton White's first season as the Gamecocks' defensive coordinator. Provided/USC Athletics

COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s defense was overlooked last season for reasons bizarre enough to grab national headlines.

The Gamecocks started four quarterbacks, and one of them was a converted graduate assistant coach, Zeb Noland.

Another was veteran wide receiver Dakereon Joyner, who went 9-for-9 passing during a Duke’s Mayo Bowl upset of North Carolina in his first college start at quarterback.

New quarterback Spencer Rattler has been the face of the franchise since arriving from Oklahoma via the transfer portal.

That’s more than fine with South Carolina defensive coordinator Clayton White.

“I’m not a hater. I’m not jealous,” White said with a big smile. “I’m a team player. It’s awesome. I love it.”

Relative anonymity is one of White’s favorite hiding places. It worked for the Gamecocks in 2021 when the defense was better than generally given credit for; South Carolina finished sixth in the 14-team SEC in total defense (355.7 yards per game allowed).

Under-the-radar scenarios of 2021 included the Gamecocks going into late-season games against Florida, Auburn and North Carolina as underdogs and coming out with victories featuring steady obstruction (40-17, 21-17 and 38-21, respectively).

The wide shadow of fresh quarterback buzz is more than welcome again as the coaches on defense go about preparing for another season likely to include a bunch of close games.

The shadow, however, is grounded in harsh SEC comparisons not easy to hurdle.

South Carolina was picked to finish fifth in the SEC East at SEC Media Days. Redshirt junior nickel back Cam Smith and senior defensive tackle Zacch Pickens were the only defensive Gamecocks selected preseason all-SEC, and both made the second team.

Here’s how college football analyst Phil Steele ranks South Carolina’s position groups on defense within the SEC: defensive line 10, linebackers 9, defensive backs 5.

Coordinating vs. the SEC

The keys to White still loving the South Carolina perception (whatever it is) in December:

• White improving in his second season as a defensive coordinator at the Power 5 level

• Edge rusher Jordan Burch emerging as a constant threat

• Smith following one stellar season of pass coverage with another to take pressure off newcomers such as safety Devonni Reed. Reed is a graduate transfer from Central Michigan who replaces first-team all-SEC selection Jaylan Foster

• Finding enough helpful players to get through an SEC gauntlet

White, a 44-year-old former N.C. State and New York Giants linebacker, came to Shane Beamer’s initial staff last year after coordinating defenses at Western Kentucky.

He got dunked into the SEC water with a 40-13 loss at Georgia. South Carolina finished 7-6, 3-5 in the conference.

The biggest difference White saw on SEC football fields?

“The coaches we face,” he said July 28.

Better strategies going in, smarter and quicker adjustments.

“It has made me grow as a football coach, just as far as understanding college football at a higher level,” White said. “I thought I knew a lot and then going against some of the coaches in this league, I’ve learned more.”

The learning curve should apply to offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield, too.

Jordan Burch watch

Burch, a 6-6, 275-pound junior from Columbia’s Hammond School, was one of former head coach Will Muschamp’s top-rated signees. So far, there have been flashes but just one college start.

Burch finished strong, with a season-high five tackles against North Carolina. White says he would have averaged more than 30 snaps per game in 2021 — like 45 or 50 — if not stuck behind Aaron Sterling and Green Bay Packers fifth-round draft pick JJ Enagbare.

“That’s all it was,” White said. “He probably should have played a little bit more.”

So maybe a bigger problem than who replaces Enagbare and Sterling is who replaces Burch, as overall depth is the main thing holding South Carolina back.

But even Smith, that rare Gamecocks star on defense, is treated in a manner deserving of any member of an overlooked defense.

“He’s earned the recognition,” White said of the early-round 2023 NFL draft prospect. “He’s a dynamic cover corner. He’s one of the best cover corners in college football this year. He’s earned everything that they’ve said.”

And yet …

“It’s our job to humble those players,” White went on. “Believe me, when they walk in that building every day they think they’re the worst player ever. We push all types of buttons to keep those guys hungry.”

Such tactics worked last season, something between better than expected but still just under the radar.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff

Tough SEC defense room

Where college football analyst Phil Steele ranks South Carolina’s position groups on defense within the SEC going into the 2022 season:

Defensive line – 10

Linebackers – 9

Defensive backs – 5