USC’s defensive backs always under head coach’s watchful eye

Rising senior Chaz Elder (17) is among the safeties vying for a starting spot in Will Muschamp’s first spring practice at South Carolina. (AP Photo/ Richard Shiro)

COLUMBIA — He seemed more like a position coach than a head coach, instructing players on the correct angle they needed to take at the snap of the ball, and to get two hands up in the air while going for an interception. Under Will Muschamp, you use one hand at your own peril.

“Two hands!” he roared at a player in a South Carolina spring practice open to the public last week. “The next guy who tries that one-handed s--t, you’re out of here!”

Under former South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier, a Heisman Trophy-winning passer at Florida in the 1960s, it was the quarterbacks who comprised the most scrutinized unit on the field. Under Muschamp it’s the defensive backs, in particular the safeties, who man the same position the head coach did as a walk-on at Georgia in the early 1990s.

“That’s his speciality,” said safety Chaz Elder, a rising senior. “He wants us to play a certain way, and he’s trying his hardest to get us to play that way. So he’s very hands-on.”

For South Carolina’s defensive backs, there’s no escaping the watchful eyes of the two men most responsible for USC’s defense, Muschamp and top lieutenant Travaris Robinson, USC’s defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. During individual unit drills, Muschamp takes the safeties and “Coach T-Rob” the cornerbacks. It’s not unusual for the defensive backs to be the last group to leave the practice field.

“It’s kind of intense,” said cornerback Rashad Fenton. Muschamp “has an eye on us. He’s going to make sure that he really looks at us, and that every day we’re amped up. That’s just his way of getting on us to get us to perform better.”

Robinson was an All-SEC safety at Auburn under former head coach Tommy Tuberville, and went on to play three seasons in the NFL. Muschamp walked on at Georgia after a broken leg suffered playing baseball scared off recruiters, and went on to serve as team captain and make 84 tackles his senior year.

“As coach Spurrier once told me one time, ‘You’re a lot better coach than you were a player,’” Muschamp said. “He meant it as a compliment. I didn’t always take it that way.”

But he clearly remains close to his old position, taking a very hands-on approach, to the point where it’s the head coach physically instructing South Carolina’s safeties on nuances like body position and attack angle. Muschamp is with the safeties in the meeting room as well as on the practice field.

“We meet with him a lot,” Elder said. “... He expects a lot from the safeties, because that’s his position.”

There’s also another reason for the personal attention: the way USC’s secondary performed last season.

“We need to find answers in the secondary,” Muschamp said before spring practice started. “I’m not real confident in the safety position based on what we saw a year ago.” And that’s without departing senior Isaiah Johnson, the only real veteran of the group.

No wonder, then, Muschamp has looked at a number of his returning defensive backs at a number of different positions, trying corners Fenton and Chris Lammons at nickel and safety, respectively. Safety Darin Smalls from Summerville left the program, but Chris Moody, a safety who planned to transfer, returned for his senior year.

Early on, the results didn’t seem promising. “Me and T-Rob may line up at safety,” Muschamp said after one of USC’s first spring practices. But over time he grew to see potential in D.J. Smith, who will miss the remainder of the spring with a thumb injury, and Elder, whom he said tackled well in a scrimmage last weekend.

“I think we have a good mix of guys,” said Muschamp, whose team scrimmaged again Saturday, and has one week of practice remaining before the spring game. “The time to experiment is in the spring. Because when we get to fall camp, we need to set some guys in some spots which we feel will be our best four, five, or six guys at a time to play.”

And Muschamp will likely be as hands-on with the defensive backs then as he is now, the old Bulldogs safety coming out on the practice field once again.

“I didn’t know any of that,” corner Rico McWilliams said, when asked about Muschamp’s college days. “I just know you’ve got to be tough and want to play. ... He wants you to be tough and physical, and compete. That’s the No. 1 thing. You’re going to have to compete, or you’re not going to play.”

Offensive lineman Eric Douglas (6-5. 284) of Charlotte confirmed Saturday morning that he verbally committed to USC earlier in the week.

Douglas committed to Muschamp by phone on Wednesday but wanted to wait until talking with him in person at Saturday’s scrimmage before publicizing the news.

Douglas narrowed his list to USC, Penn State, Florida, Maryland and North Carolina from over 20 offers.

Douglas and his high school teammate — offensive lineman TJ Moore — have vowed to play together in college and Douglas expects Moore to follow soon with a commitment to the Gamecocks.