The upcoming 2011 season opener against East Carolina on Sept. 3 won't be the first time South Carolina Assistant Head Coach for Defense Ellis Johnson has matched wits with an opponent that strives to throw the football on nearly every snap.
Yes, the ball will be in the air a lot at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
While watching hours of East Carolina tape trying to figure out the best strategy to slow down the pass-happy Pirates, Johnson must determine if USC's base 4-2-5 scheme is suitable for defending ECU throughout the entire 60-minute game.
Less than two months from kickoff, Johnson could be rethinking how USC will line up opposite the Pirates, which threw the ball almost 64 percent (632 passes in 990 offensive snaps) of the time last season.
And with prolific starting quarterback Dominique Davis (3,967 passing yards in 2010) returning for his senior season, the Pirates, whose head coach (Ruffin McNeil) is a disciple of former controversial Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, are expected to throw the ball between 40 to 50 times against USC.
So, what should Johnson do? He told Gamecock Central recently a different defensive scheme could be more effective against ECU and other offenses that prefer to run the spread.
"We're going to work with a three-man line and a four-linebacker look and those two guys are going to be the two outside linebackers," Johnson said. "It's going to be another one of our defensive schemes we've been tweaking to use against some of these spread teams."
The purpose of the 3-4? Get more speed on the field to better defend the four or five wide receiver sets many spread teams employ with great success.
"Obviously, it's not a 250-pound outside linebacker scheme," Johnson said. "You need two athletic safety types out there on the edge and go with an odd-man front. That will be one of our change-ups against these spreads teams. When we start our defensive meetings within the next couple of weeks, we're going to talk with them and we want to make sure we have that in our preseason installation. If we like what we see, it will be a part of our deal. If we don't really feel like it's giving us what we want, we won't use it.
"But those schemes with the two extra spurs is going to be something we look at in the pre-season."
An essential characteristic of any defensive scheme intended to stop fast-paced offenses is the capability to run it with the same 11 players on the field, Johnson maintained.
"I would like to do all these different things without substituting," Johnson said. "The fast-paced teams try to get you caught substituting and incur too-many-men-on-the-field penalties or not getting a guy out there quickly enough to be lined up to play. You almost have to get away from the different personnel packages everybody has done over the years and try to get everything done with your base personnel."
Even though ECU lost three starters on the offensive line and their most productive wide receiver from last season (Dwayne Harris, 101 catches), the Pirates remind Johnson of USC's opponent in last year's season opener.
"They look very similar to Southern Miss in our opener last year," Johnson said. "They have a very good tempo. They handle it well. It's one thing to go fast, but when you have bunch of procedure penalties or fumbles, the spread can be your own worst enemy. But they do a great job with it."
ECU averaged 36.8 points per game last season in McNeil's debut season in Greenville, N.C. But in four contests against BCS opponents, the scoring output slipped to 24.3 ppg. In ECU's 51-20 Military Bowl loss to Maryland in Washington, D.C., the Terrapins limited the Pirates to 311 passing yards on 62 attempts.
Yet Johnson maintains the USC secondary will be severely tested by an ECU offense that could literally throw the ball on every snap regardless of the down and distance.
"They will be very difficult," Johnson said. "It will be a very tough opener for us. They do an excellent job with that scheme. They definitely want to throw the football around. In their bowl game, Maryland was basically begging them to run the ball. But they kept throwing the football and Maryland did a fantastic job on them. They definitely want to get the ball in the air."
By Johnson's count, East Carolina is one of several fast-paced offensive teams the Gamecocks will encounter during the 2011 season. Auburn should retain its high-tempo scheme since offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is still calling the plays. Mississippi State under third-year head coach Dan Mullen will seek to do the same. Rival Clemson is joining the movement as well by shifting towards a faster-paced system with a new offensive coordinator in place.
Even Navy has been known to constantly put players in motion to try to get the defense to reveal their intentions.
In an effort to better scheme against no-huddle teams, Johnson has consulted with other defensive coordinators and defensive coaches around the country, including Kevin Steele, Tommy West and others.
"We're still tweaking some things in our signal system and our verbiage because, frankly, we haven't changed scheme-wise over the last three or four years as much as everyone has been trying to find a way to get your defensive signals out there fast enough for the no-huddle teams," Johnson said.
"Just talking and chatting with a lot of guys over the summer, everybody is on the same page. The biggest challenge you have defensively is operations with signals, calls, checking your calls and changing your calls. You have to be flexible and be able to change your defense when the offense continues to call plays based on the press box. When the offense calls a play based on how you're lined up, now you have to be able to get out of that defense. That's what everybody has been trying to do by adjusting their verbiage and signal system. Soon enough, there will be another fad and things will change."
Are the high-tempo offenses ahead of the defenses right now?
"They've found every advantage and are taking advantage of the rules," Johnson said. "One thing college football has a problem with in my opinion is you don't have to snap the ball within 40 seconds, but you can snap the ball in one second. What that does is create confusion. Sometimes they try to snap the ball before anybody can get lined up.
"If that's the way to play football, that's fine. But sometimes the game gets sloppy and it's less about execution and expertise of football than it is about trickery. I'm not criticizing the coaches or the systems. If I was a head coach I would start running that offense. It makes it very difficult. The teams that can really go at a fast pace can really be successful."
Inconsistency in officiating hasn't helped either, Johnson said, as teams attempt to defend the fast-paced offense.
"No two officiating crews handle it the same way," Johnson said. "You never know what you're going to get out of those guys. Some of them see a lot of it, some not as much. And they all spot the ball differently and wind the clock differently. There's no real system to it right now. So the pressure goes to the defensive side to find a way to match the other side with speed and getting lined up and playing."
Interestingly, the first three contests of the 2011 season offer a stark contrast for Johnson and the USC offense. After trying to contain ECU's pass-happy offense in Week 1, the Gamecocks face Georgia's pro-style power I-formation offense in Athens on Sept. 10. The following week, Navy brings the triple option to Columbia for the Sept. 17 home opener at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Three consecutive games, three entirely different offensive philosophies.
"We hit the fast-paced spread where they'll throw it around (ECU) and then Georgia will try to play a more physical style," Johnson said. "With our schedule, you get power football one week and then we put a wishbone team on our schedule that screws everything up right in the middle of our conference schedule. Then we have to adapt to the no-huddle. It's very tough. Defenses in college football are challenged like never before. It's going to be a very difficult opening run for us."
Seeing Navy and their funky run-dominated offense, one that is seldom seen in the SEC these days, on the schedule irks Johnson even though the Midshipmen were a late - and expensive - addition to the 2011 schedule.
Navy will receive a $950,000 guarantee to make the trip from Annapolis, the highest sum ever paid to a non-conference opponent.
"Putting a wishbone team in the middle of your schedule keeps you from making progress and building on things from week to week," Johnson said. "You have to throw out your base defense that week and you have to run three or four schemes that are sound against the triple option. When you do that, you just pull it off the shelf and you haven't practiced it. You probably won't play well that week. You destroy the continuity you've built in the preseason and the first two games. Then you pull out your base defense again the following week and it's like starting all over.
"We'll have to do the same thing with The Citadel prior to the Clemson game."