COLUMBIA — There’s a football bolted to the wall outside South Carolina’s defensive meeting room. Mounted on a heavy-duty spring, the idea is to punch, slap or slam it every time you pass.
The message? Knock the ball loose.
The ball won’t come off the wall. Hit it with a sledgehammer or one of Javon Kinlaw’s forearms and it will still pop back into place.
It’s fitting. The Gamecocks’ emphasis on trying to get the ball isn’t working, and it’s leading to a fundamental breakdown in how they tackle.
Coach Will Muschamp interrupted when asked if concentrating on stripping the ball is affecting the team’s ability to make tackles.
“Nah, they’re really good players," he said after USC's 47-23 loss to Alabama. "And when you play against really good people, those things are going to happen.”
That wasn’t comforting. Even if the last opponent was second-ranked Alabama, there are plenty of good players on the teams USC has left on its schedule. At 1-2, the Gamecocks can’t afford to let too many of them do what Alabama and North Carolina (in the season-opener) did.
“Generally, we’re tackling someone who is a better athlete than us. We have to bring our feet on tackles and leverage the ball the correct way,” Muschamp said. “If you leverage the ball the correct way and you miss the tackle, I have no problem and I'll never say a word about it because generally, you've made whoever is carrying the ball stop his feet and we've got guys coming to the football. If that happens, we're going to be OK.”
Muschamp and defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson have used the approach since they came to USC, and in their second year, it worked well. The Gamecocks had 28 takeaways (14 recovered fumbles, 14 interceptions) and won nine games.
The two leaders of that initiative were defensive tackle Dante Sawyer and linebacker Skai Moore. Sawyer forced five fumbles that season while Moore wound up tying Bo Davies’ school record for career interceptions (14).
They’re gone. Without them, USC’s takeaways plummeted to 18 last year, and stand at four through three games this year. Three of those four were interceptions against Charleston Southern.
Still, not getting the ball isn't terrible if the Gamecocks could simply make the tackle. Time after time, they go for the shoulders and chest instead of keying on the waist or diving for the legs. And more and more, the result is ball carriers breaking away for big gains.
They don’t need to re-learn tackling, linebacker T.J. Brunson said, they just have to go do it. The Gamecocks missed 18 tackles against UNC and 11 against Alabama.
“We just need to execute better,” he said. “Wrap up and run our feet.”
It seems sound to not tackle your teammates to the ground in practice, as most injuries happen when prone. USC also doesn’t subscribe to the “breakdown” mantra of trying to get feet set and body up a ball carrier on contact.
“That old theory when I was growing up and coming up in Pop Warner of breakdown is the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life,” Muschamp said. “If you stop your feet against a really good athlete, you have zero chance at making the tackle.”
The Gamecocks do work on tackling, every day, and use the “thud” period. That’s meeting a ball carrier chest-to-chest and wrapping up, but like with all practice tackles, not taking him to the ground.
“If you’re a good person at thudding a person and not bring them to the ground, when it’s time to get them to the ground, you’ll do what you’re supposed to do,” linebacker Ernest Jones said.
The Gamecocks haven’t been able to do it consistently. They'll be playing a Missouri team that gets its receivers in space just like Alabama did, so tackling well is a priority.
"We emphasize it every week, every day and we work on it every day in our individual periods defensively. A lot of times with our offensive players during our special teams period, we work on tackling as well,” Muschamp said. “That's not something that’s anything new.”
Working on it isn’t, but perhaps the approach should be.
Defensive end Brad Johnson (groin) and receiver Randrecous Davis (ankle) will not play this week. Both will be out until after the bye week.
Defensive tackle Keir Thomas (infected ankle) won’t be cleared for at least another two to three weeks.