For Gamecocks, defensive improvement begins with minding the gaps

South Carolina linebacker Skai Moore (10) may shift positions on a Gamecocks defense which did not record a sack last weekend against Georgia.

When he watched the film of South Carolina’s blowout loss to No. 7 Georgia last Saturday, defensive end Cedrick Cooper noticed the same thing over and over. And it wasn’t Bulldogs quarterback Greyson Lambert completing yet another pass on the way to a near-perfect night.

It was gaps — more specifically, gap responsibilities which USC defenders either missed, or didn’t maintain, or weren’t able to get to quickly enough to keep Georgia from rolling up 576 yards and matching the most points it’s ever scored against the Gamecocks.

“Winning our gaps and getting where we need go in the right amount of time,” said Cooper, a senior. “We can’t delay and stuff. And we can’t sit there and watch and try to see the play work out. We need to be there at the right time at the right place, and be able to make the play.”

In a 52-20 loss that stands as one of USC’s worst under head coach Steve Spurrier, that proved rarely the case. Under co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke the Gamecocks have placed an emphasis on technique and fundamentals, and few elements combine those two more than maintaining gap responsibility — in most elementary terms, plugging the spaces between offensive players.

Against opponents which put skill players in motion and double-team along the offensive line, it’s not as simple as it sounds. At the same time, missing gaps opened the kind of holes which helped Georgia tailback Nick Chubb rush for 159 yards, and left Lambert unhurried as he passed for a career-high 330.

“Simple things — guys just getting out of their gaps,” said junior linebacker T.J. Holloman. “It’s really all on us. We got out of our gaps, we didn’t have gap control. One person gets out of their gap, like we saw, big plays happen.”

Defensive end Darius English agreed. “It was simple solutions to the problem. It wasn’t anything serious,” he said. “It was guys staying in their gaps, and effort.”

Toward that end, the Gamecocks (1-2) will adjust their defensive lineup for Saturday’s noon game against Central Florida (0-3) — which is without its starting quarterback and receiver due to injuries, and ranks last among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams in total offense. Coaches are looking at Holloman at the middle (or “Mike”) linebacker spot currently occupied by Skai Moore, who leads USC in both tackles and interceptions.

Moore would move to weak-side (or “Will”) linebacker ahead of Jonathan Walton, while either Larenz Bryant or Ernest Hawkins would play the strong-side (or “Sam”) linebacker spot which Holloman occupied last weekend. Moore played Will last season, and Holloman practiced at Mike over the spring and summer.

“Mike is where I’ve been the most comfortable at,” he said.

Linebacker coach Kirk Botkin hopes the move will free Moore to take more plays, with Holloman now tasked with calling defensive signals and making checks. Against Georgia, Holloman “did his job, played hard, had some good run fits for us,” Hoke said. “He’s an experienced guy, he’s played, so we’re excited to see him.”

The changes come on a USC defense which has continues to slip backward since its opening-night victory over North Carolina. After recording four sacks in that game, the Gamecocks have just one since. They also haven’t forced a punt in the first half this season, a trend they hope to reverse against a UCF team which last week lost to Furman.

“I don’t know that we can assume that we can stop anybody consistently, because we haven’t yet,” Spurrier said. “But we’re hoping. We’re hoping to really play our best game. And we’ll find out if we’re capable. It should be a huge challenge to our players, it really should, to see if we can go out there and really look like a good team this week.”

And that begins with minding gaps.

“People know how to play in it,” Cooper said of Hoke’s system. “When you get out there, when they tell you to stay in your gap, stay in your gap. Don’t try to spin out and be the super player, you know what I’m saying? Don’t try to make all the plays. Just trust the guy next to you, and do what you have to do.”