August 9, 2011

Ellis Johnson breaks down the defense



After each practice, we post an in-depth practice report and an in-depth practice notebook. Following is our notebook from Tuesday's practice.

Before preseason practice started a week ago, Assistant Head Coach for Defense Ellis Johnson lauded the depth at the linebacker spot.

After seven practices, Johnson realizes he could have a pleasant problem on his hands by the time the 2011 season starts - too many players, too few spots on the depth chart.

In other words, linebacker continues to be a complex puzzle for Johnson to solve.

It starts, of course, with junior Shaq Wilson (middle linebacker) and sixth-year senior Rodney Paulk (outside linebacker). Reginald Bowens and Qua Gilchrist are behind Wilson, while Quin Smith and Damario Jeffery are behind Paulk at Will linebacker. Freshman Cedrick Cooper is starting to convince Johnson he might be ready to play in 2011, as well.

Now Johnson is starting to move the chess pieces around. When he's done, Wilson and Paulk could find themselves at the same spot.

"The ones that are controlling the defense the best are Shaq and Rodney," Johnson said. "They could end up having to rotate at Mike (middle) linebacker. We could bounce Qua outside a little bit. The thing that concerns me right now, and it's a good concern, is that all of them are playing well enough to get a shot on the field. But it's almost a magic trick to try to put six linebackers on the field in a game."

If Wilson and Paulk both end up at MLB, that would likely leave Smith and Jeffery to fight for the starting job at outside linebacker with Gilchrist available as well.

One of the storylines at linebacker during preseason camp has been the development of Cooper, who has followed up a strong summer with strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald with a good start to camp. Right now, the Lithonia, Ga., native is moving towards earning playing time in 2011.

"Physically, there's no question he'll be able to play for us at some point," Johnson said. "But he's struggling with learning the big picture. He's a little behind those other guys right now. It will take him a while to catch up. But I've been pleased with his effort."

Besides the defensive tackle spot next to Travian Robertson, the most-watched position battle might be free safety, where redshirt sophomore Jimmy Legree is trying to earn the starting job. Legree shifted from cornerback to free safety late in the spring.

"Everything is going well right now," Legree said Tuesday. "I have all the plays down pat. I know my assignments. I've made a few mental errors, but everything is pretty good so far. I'm very comfortable. At safety, you have to look at the whole field. At cornerback, you don't have to worry about the other half of the field. D.J. Swearinger has been a big help. He knows everything he's doing. Whenever I ask a question, he knows the answer. All I need to do now is make plays."

Legree is battling freshman Brison Williams for the starting job. After seven practices, the gap between the two of them is minimal, Johnson said.

"They're all making a lot of progress," Johnson said. "They're doing well. Right now, there's very little separation. They've all shown really big-time improvement. I'm encouraged. They still have one or two mistakes a day they have to get cleaned up. Jimmy and Brison are having a good competition there."

"We're starting to get some guys to make some plays that we know can do it," Johnson said. "They just have to get some more consistency. But a lot of improvement has happened, but a lot of improvement is still needed."

Another freshman, Sheldon Royster, has been limited as he rehabs from offseason shoulder surgery. He's worn a yellow jersey in the first week, and has been held out of contact drills.

"He's doing fine, but he's a little behind those guys that have been here since the spring," Johnson said.

At cornerback, the biggest issue remains who will be the fourth cornerback behind Stephon Gilmore, Akeem Auguste and C.C. Whitlock. That directly leads to the following question - how is sophomore Victor Hampton doing?

Hampton is scheduled to miss at least the season-opener because of academic issues that arose in the spring semester.

"He's doing well," Johnson said. "He's like the rest of them. You knock on wood. He hasn't done anything but do positive things on and off the field since camp started. Hopefully, he can continue to do that. He can really be a help for us and be a bonus we can add to the secondary."

Johnson said Auguste is not in danger of missing an extended period of time with his foot arch injury. He said it wasn't a major injury.

Because many of the backups in the secondary lack playing experience, Johnson is still concerned about quality depth there. Last year, Johnson blamed fatigue for some of the secondary's difficulties because some of the defensive backs had to play an excessive number of snaps due to a lack of backups.

"We still have some depth questions in the back," Johnson said. "I don't think we're going to be able to do a lot of substitution packages like we did three years ago. Also, a lot of offensive schemes are no huddle. There is a lot less subbing going on. That's the nature of the college game now."

Johnson and the rest of the defensive coaches are already planning ahead to Saturday's 4 p.m. scrimmage at Williams-Brice Stadium. Specifically, they want to determine how many reps each player should receive with the hope that each player gets 10-15 snaps to give the coaches a fair sample to work from.

"We'll probably establish a set number of plays that our older guys will get and then get them off the field," Johnson said. "We'll get these younger and inexperienced guys who haven't played much a lot of reps.

Saturday's scrimmage should last 60-80 plays, Johnson said.

"It's more about identifying players at this point," Johnson said. "Maybe the following scrimmage we'll get more into where we are as a unit. We'll start (thinking about redshirts), but it's an ongoing process. Every day they come out here, they help us make a decision on who we need to get ready to play against East Carolina."

USC will hold a mini-scrimmage at the end of Wednesday's practice, Johnson said, but Saturday's official scrimmage "is where we will start to get a feel for whether a player has reached a point of where he can play with us or not."

DEFENSIVE LINE BATTLING INJURIES: The USC defensive line might be the deepest position on the team, so it's been able to survive a recent rash of ailments.

Defensive tackle Travian Robertson and backup ends Byron McKnight and Chaz Sutton all sat out Tuesday's workout for various reasons. Robertson and McKnight have been slowed by hamstring injuries, while Sutton has a "minor medical condition." Robertson and McKnight have continued to mentor the younger defensive linemen, Brad Lawing said.

"Our three seniors have done a great job of helping the young kids," Lawing said. "Travian and Byron have already graduated and Melvin (Ingram) is due to graduate in December. So they're college graduates and about to be. I could literally not come to practice and they could run the practice as far as knowledge of the drill work and making the calls."

Moreover, freshman defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles became dehydrated, Lawing said, and visited with team trainers as soon as Tuesday's practice concluded. Robertson could return as early as Wednesday, Lawing added.

"It doesn't bother me too much to have Travian out," Johnson said. "He's had a lot of reps and he certainly knows what to do. The only factor with him out is we're not building a lot of continuity with your total unit. When Travian is in there at defensive tackle, your linebackers look a little better."

The last couple of days have shown the extent of the defensive line's depth, Johnson said, despite the injuries.

"Your continuity and your competition starts to fall off, but they're a good-looking bunch," Johnson said. "We have a lot of numbers. Obviously, we have some talent. When Brad gets all of them working together for several days continuously, he'll know who his best four is and his next four and so on. But it's been kind of frustrating having those good ones out."

Robertson's absence has given more reps to Byron Jerideau, and the former junior-college transfer has responded with some excellent workouts. His significant weight loss (35 pounds) from a year ago continues to boost his speed and quickness.

"We're really proud of him," Johnson said. "He really approached it the right way. The first two weeks he was here he knew he had a problem. He's gradually taken that weight off and everything has improved. His stamina has improved. His fundamentals and stance have improved, the little things he struggled with because of his weight. Everything has gotten a lot better."

Even though an intense competition at the open defensive tackle spot is going on right now, don't expect it to end once the season starts. Instead, Lawing expects the starter will be a week-by-week decision.

"All those guys bring different things to the table," Lawing said. "It will probably be a game-week decision as to who will run with the first group at that other tackle position."

SPURRIER ON GARCIA: Steve Spurrier said Tuesday on The Dan Patrick Show that quarterback Stephen Garcia has been a "little helter-skelter in the past" but again maintained the fifth-year senior "has changed." In fact, after his fifth suspension, Spurrier suggested he gave Garcia an ultimatum.

"He had to change or we were going to move on and try somebody else," Spurrier said. "But he's really impressed us with the way he's changed his lifestyle. I had a little talk with him today. I told him he can't act like a goofball anymore, you're a different person. And he has. He hasn't been clowning been around at practice. He's trying to make decisions every play in pass skel. He's really been much better. We're believing Stephen is going to have by far his best season this year. We just have to wait and see."

Spurrier knows Garcia must have a great season in order for USC to achieve its goal of capturing the SEC championship or beyond.

"Usually, we all know that if your quarterback doesn't have a super year, it's hard for your team to have a big year," Spurrier said. "He has a lot of good players around him. He has two All-Americans in Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery. Our O-line, I think, is going to play well. We have some good players in there. Some young guys are going to have to play. But we should have some really good players around Stephen to give him a chance to play well."

WALK-ONS KNOW THE DEAL: The Bryce Sherman situation raised the public awareness of the sensitive issue of walk-ons and scholarships. Spurrier, who announced Tuesday that senior kicker Jay Wooten would go on scholarship for 2011, again defended the practice of taking scholarships away from former walk-ons if circumstances warrant. Spurrier said it's a "lot clearer" when walk-on players with one year of eligibility remaining are awarded with a scholarship.

"When we put players on scholarship with two or three years left, we always tell them this is a one-year deal," Spurrier said Tuesday. "We're not obligated and you're not obligated for three years or anything like that. So, if we don't renew a player, it's simply because it's not available that year."

In short, Spurrier said, when a walk-on is given a scholarship, he makes sure there is no confusion. It's a one-year deal and nothing more.

"If a walk-on player goes on scholarship, he definitely knows it's a one-year deal," Spurrier said. "The guys we've signed, we're pretty much committed to them."

Spurrier pointed to former O-lineman Ryan Broadhead as someone who benefited from being on scholarship for over four years. Broadhead didn't play a single down for the Gamecocks after joining the program in January 2007, but graduated in May with a degree in economics.

"When people say they can't play and we're getting rid of them, they're telling a fabricated story like some of them do anyway," Spurrier said. "The walk-on kids that get scholarships know they're one year and if they're not renewed, they're supposed to understand that."

BARNES ADJUSTING TO CHANGE: Wide receiver Jason Barnes is a fifth-year senior, but he's continuing to make the adjustment to slot receiver. He's battling sophomore Ace Sanders for the starting job. Sanders, though, has been teaching Barnes the nuances of the position.

"Coach (Steve) Spurrier Jr. has been doing an exceptional job of helping me learn the plays and learn the new coverages and the angles I'm seeing now," Barnes said. "Ace Sanders played slot receiver the entire year last year, and he knows it better than I do, honestly. So, every time coach Spurrier is busy I can go to Ace. Even though he's a sophomore, he tells me what's going on and he helps me. We're all working together to get better and help the team."

Barnes spent his first four seasons in the program at wide receiver, lining up on the outside. He rarely had to get physical except when he was blocking on a sweep or when a ball-carrier managed to get downfield. Slot receiver, though, is different.

"It's a lot tougher because it's a lot more mental on the inside," Barnes said. "You have the first level, second level, the running back, safety. At this level, a lot of guys have the athletic ability, but it's really above the neck. It's more of a mental game. You have to understand the playbook and understand the coverages and what defenses are doing. You have to be pretty smart to play the slot position. It's real important to him, which means it's real important to us."

SUTTON PUSHING FOR PLAYING TIME: Although he didn't practice on Tuesday, Sutton is working behind Devin Taylor at left defensive end and hopes to see his playing time increase in 2011. But finding playing time will be tough in a unit many analysts consider the best in the SEC.

"I can push him and he can push me," Sutton said recently. "We're all just working hard and trying to contribute to the defense. It's a good thing that people think that highly of you, but we still have to go out there every Saturday and do our jobs and hopefully come out with a win."

Sutton has battled injuries since enrolling at USC in January 2009. He appeared in four games that season before a left hamstring injury ended his season. In 2010, a shoulder injury limited him to seven games. He has five tackles in 11 career games

"It's been tough," Sutton said. "This year, one of my main goals has been to stay healthy and make it through the season without any injuries."

Sutton's biggest moment as a Gamecock came on the final play of the first half against Troy last season when he returned an interception for a touchdown.

"That's probably my biggest thrill so far, but hopefully there's more to come," Sutton smiled.

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