KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Shawn Elliott walked into South Carolina’s meeting room on Monday morning, and assigned linebacker Jonathan Walton a new role.
“I said, ‘I want to put in a three-back set with Jonathan Walton. I want to see him catch a touchdown pass.’ And it worked out perfectly,” USC’s interim head coach said after using Walton as both a fullback and a linebacker in Saturday’s 27-24 loss to Tennessee at Neyland Stadium.
“That’s a guy who’s a playmaker. We’ve got to get him on the field, defensively or offensively. But you’ll see more of him.”
Walton, who played some running back at Bayside Academy in Daphne, Ala., caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from Perry Orth and is believed to be the first USC player to see action on both sides of the ball in the same game since cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who would take an occasional snap as a wildcat quarterback. The junior finished with two tackles in addition to his touchdown catch.
“We just put it in this week,” Walton said. “I told them I was trying my best to get out there and do whatever I can. We just installed it this week. We were just trying to find ways of making the team better, just finding new things. We’d been running it all week, and we ran it this game.”
Even after a difficult loss, Walton couldn’t hide his exuberance over his first college touchdown. “I had a good time with it,” he said. Orth, who threw the touchdown out of a three-back formation which also had tight end Kevin Crosby lined up as an H-back, was glad to have the 6-foot, 235-pound Walton on offense.
“He’s an athlete,” Orth said. “I love that little formation we put in. It gives us the run-pass option. Jon made a play. ... He’s very, very athletic, he’s got great hands. He was wide open, and he just made a play.”
Walton said he expected to remain primarily a linebacker, with the option of playing more fullback in the future. “We’re going to leave the package in,” he said.
Players on both teams struggled with footing Saturday night, as the Neyland Stadium turf proved more slippery than anticipated. Elliott noticed it as he watched pre-game warmups.
“I was out there in pre-game and noticed the field kind of tearing up,” Elliott said. “The first thing I asked was, ‘Does Under Armour make a different kind of studded cleat? We’re going to need some traction here.’
“There were several times we had some footing issues, and I was very surprised about the footing on the field. They’re planting that rye grass up here ... and we did slip around a little bit.”
South Carolina may have lost Al Harris Jr. for the remainder of the season after the cornerback suffered what Elliott called a separated shoulder making a stop on Tennessee tailback Jalen Hurd. “There’s going to be further evaluation, and we’ll make a decision,” he said.
Wide receiver D.J. Neal was also transported to an area hospital for X-rays on his hip, because Neyland Stadium does not have an X-ray machine. Elliott said the tests were negative. Defensive linemen David Johnson and Dante Sawyer were both helped off the field in the second half, although Sawyer later returned to the game.
Receiver Pharoh Cooper took a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit from Tennessee free safety Brian Randolph in the first half, and was down for several minutes before being helped off by trainers. Cooper returned to the game and caught a touchdown pass, while Randolph was ejected for targeting.
Rashad Fenton, who returned a kickoff for a touchdown four weeks ago at LSU, was suspended for the Tennessee game, Elliott said. The freshman had been suspended for the first half against Central Florida for a class attendance issue. Elliott said Fenton would return to practice Monday.
South Carolina’s 21 points in the third quarter were most by USC in a quarter this season, and the 101,253 which watched the game represented the eighth-largest crowd ever to see the Gamecocks play.
Elliott Fry’s 43-yard field goal in the second quarter was the 49th of his career, tying the junior with Ryan Succop (2005-08) for second most in school history. Collin Mackie (1987-90) holds the USC record with 72.