The 2011 South Carolina defense is projected as one of the best for the Gamecocks in recent memory. Certainly, sufficient talent is on hand to produce better results than 2010. Here are five goals for the USC defense for the upcoming season:
1. Hold Opponents To Less Than 35 Percent Third-Down Conversion Percentage
USC's failure to consistently stop opponents on third down last season is a sore point with Steve Spurrier, who has rarely missed an opportunity during the off-season to mention the Gamecocks allowed foes to convert 40.4 percent of third-down chances in 2011. However, greater depth along the defensive line, the return of Shaq Wilson after missing most of the 2010 season and better and more disciplined play in the secondary should produce a lesser percentage this season. Last year, four SEC schools had third-down conversion percentages on defense under 35 percent, the same number as 2009. Arkansas led the league at 33.5 percent, followed by Alabama at 34 percent.
Preseason talk by coaches and players indicates USC plans to employ more man-to-man coverage in 2011 than last year, when the Gamecocks relied extensively on zone coverage because Ellis Johnson, by his own admission, didn't trust his secondary in man-to-man coverage. Thus, even on third down, they sat back in soft zones and allowed the offense to dictate the tempo. USC plans to utilize more aggressive tactics in 2011 and force the opponent to make great plays. In addition, a pass rush featuring Devin Taylor, Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney should be devastating, while Wilson's presence in the middle of the defense should mean fewer players are caught out of position.
2. Set The School Record For Most Sacks In A Season
USC established a new school record in 2010 for most sacks in a single season with 41. The top two sack artists were Ingram (9.0) and Taylor (7.5), both of whom return in 2011. In fact, nine of the 12 defensive players that recorded at least one sack last season are back. Only Cliff Matthews (5.5), Ladi Ajiboye (2.0) and Chris Culliver (1.0) are no longer Gamecocks. Now they add arguably the best pass-rushing defensive end prospect in a decade or longer (Clowney), along with a healthy Rodney Paulk (2.5 sacks in 2010), Wilson at linebacker and the athletic DeVonte Holloman at spur. Johnson is looking for the latter to harass opposing quarterbacks off the edge. Of course, the secondary doing a better job sticking to receivers would help, too.
3. Create 30 Turnovers
USC forced 26 turnovers in 2010, tying the Gamecocks for fifth in the SEC. Twenty-six is a respectable number. What's problematic? How the turnovers were derived. Sixteen were fumbles, 10 by interception. It's the latter figure USC coaches want to see jump in 2011. Spurrier has challenged the secondary in recent days to produce more interceptions this season, including his appearance on Thursday at the Columbia Touchdown Club. Just like an excessively high third-down conversion percentage (refer to No. 1), Spurrier views the lack of interceptions as a fundamental flaw in the defense.
USC has just 16 interceptions in the past two years (a lowly six in 2009). Five SEC schools had 16 or more picks in 2010 alone. USC had 44 pass breakups compared to those 10 interceptions (4.4 to 1 ratio) while opponents compiled 36 pass breakups and 17 interceptions in 2010 (2.1 to 1 ratio). In other words, opponents were far more opportunistic than the Gamecocks when it came to picking off passes.
4. Finish Among The Top Three In The SEC In Total Defense
Here's another troubling defensive statistic Spurrier likes to cite to media and/or fans whenever he is speaking to a crowd. Largely because of USC's difficulties stopping the pass, the Gamecocks finished seventh in the conference in total defense in 2010. Who finished sixth? Kentucky. And that's not sitting well with Spurrier or the USC defensive coaches because the Gamecocks had overall better athletes than the Wildcats on that side of the ball last season, yet they simply failed to execute in crunch time. Granted, Kentucky allowed just 0.2 total yards per game (354.2 to 354.4) less than USC last season, but finishing lower on the ladder to a 6-7 team clearly irritates Spurrier to no end, just as blowing an 18-point lead bothers him, because the second-half meltdown in Lexington cost USC the second 10-win season in school history.
With the start of the season eight days away, most analysts agree the only defenses in the SEC evidently better than USC are Alabama and LSU. Arkansas should be good again (fifth in total defense in 2010), but some other schools that finished ahead of the Gamecocks in total defense last season such as Florida, Georgia and Auburn have issues coming into 2011.
5. Allow Less Than 20 Points Per Game
USC yielded 23.1 ppg in 2010 to finish sixth in the SEC in that category. How many more games could the Gamecocks win this season if they allow a field goal less per game? It could be the difference in games at Georgia, Mississippi State and Arkansas. I'm expecting all three of those contests to be hard-fought, down-to-the wire affairs. Expecting anything less would be a disservice, and an insult to reality of life on the road in the SEC. Despite allowing 35 points to the Gamecocks, Alabama led the conference in scoring defense in 2010 with 13.5 ppg. That's in the ridiculous category. But LSU was second with 18.2 ppg and I believe 18-19 points per game is what the Gamecocks' defense should shoot for.
In order to achieve that, USC must again play solid red-zone defense. A year ago, opponents scored on 70 percent of their trips (35 of 50) inside the 20-yard line with 23 touchdowns and 12 field goals, meaning opponents scored a touchdown 46 percent of the time. Alabama surrendered a TD on 32.2 percent (10 of 31) of its opponent's red-zone chances to lead the SEC. For USC, cutting the ratio of TDs allowed to total red-zone chances from 46 percent to between 35 and 40 percent should result in fewer points allowed per game.