DEFENSIVE coordinator Lorenzo Ward said the maturation process of his unit began shortly after South Carolina’s Week 2 loss at Georgia, a game in which the Gamecocks occasionally looked confused and out of sorts.
Junior cornerback Victor Hampton said the turning point for the defense came after a few late-game lapses nearly cost USC in its win against Central Florida.
Freshman linebacker Skai Moore said the defense vowed on the bus ride out of Neyland Stadium following USC’s loss at Tennessee that “We can’t let that happen again.”
While it might be difficult to pinpoint exactly when things began to fall in place for USC’s defense, the ultimate result was a unit that was playing at a high level by season’s end.
Few would have thought early in the season — when assistant coaches were scuffling on the sideline, the head coach was questioning decisions by his defensive coordinator and opponents were consistently breaking big plays — that USC’s defense would be among the best in the SEC, if not the nation.
USC finished the season second in the SEC (14th nationally) to Alabama in scoring defense, allowing 20 points per game. The Gamecocks also were third in the SEC — behind Alabama and Florida — and 18th nationally by allowing 345 yards per game.
“It’s like putting together a puzzle, especially with this group,” Ward said. “You’ve just got to make sure you’ve put the right pieces in the right spot.”
Ward agreed that the defense faced — and dealt with — three major issues over the course of the season. The line was forced to adapt to opposing offenses giving previously unseen attention to superstar end Jadeveon Clowney. The linebacker crew was green with one freshman and one sophomore as starters. Finally, the secondary needed an attitude adjustment and a few changed assignments.
“Just to see these guys mature and understand how to handle every situation we put them in during practice in a professional way, is growth,” Ward said. “That’s growth you, as a coach, love to see.”
Even before the season began, Clowney was getting all the attention. He was a preseason Heisman Trophy hopeful. Every All-America list included his name. He was considered the front-runner to be the first player selected in the upcoming NFL draft.
Once USC’s season kicked off, Clowney was the center of attention from every opposing offense. If he was not double-teamed on plays, opposing offenses chose to run away from him. After three games, 55 of the 67 running plays by the opposition were away from Clowney, according to Ward.
“Don’t wait for JD to make a play,” Ward recalled telling his defense. “We’ve got to make certain we don’t depend on our heroes to make every play.”
The benefit to dealing with Clowney getting so much attention was that others on the line, particularly Kelcy Quarles, stepped up their games. Quarles eventually led the team in sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (13.5) while earning first-team All-SEC honors.
“Without question, Kelcy used playing with JD as motivation,” Ward said. “JD had been getting all the publicity, and Kelcy felt like he was a good football player, too, and he showed that. It motivated him to play even better.”
At linebacker, the trio of junior Sharrod Golightly, sophomore Kaiwan Lewis and freshman Moore had not previously started a game in their careers. By season’s end, Golightly counted 12 starts, Lewis nine and Moore four.
The key for the linebackers was learning to read keys, which Ward said is the most difficult aspect of the position. Game by game, each of the three seemed to mature.
“We definitely have the talent. We just didn’t have the experience,” Moore said. “That’s what we needed. The first two games, the linebackers had a basic knowledge of what we were doing, but we weren’t on top of things like we are now. It’s definitely been an improvement.”
Finally, there was the secondary.
Following the debacle at UCF, when the secondary allowed two late touchdowns in a 28-25 victory, Ward decided it was time for some changes. He benched defensive backs Hampton, Brison Williams and Kadetrix Marcus for the beginning of the game at Arkansas.
“When the players understand that the bench can be a part of their life and they don’t like the bench, then that’s going to motivate them to do their jobs and do their assignments,” Ward said.
Ward eventually moved Chaz Elder into Williams’ spot at free safety and shifted Williams to the boundary at strong safety. When Hampton and cornerback Jimmy Legree stepped up their games, the secondary had solidified.
“By the time we got to Florida, I thought we were really jelling,” Ward said. “I would tell the guys every week — we’re really close at being a good defense. It just came down to each guy trusting the other to take care of his assignment. Once we got that, I think we got better.”
It seemed unimaginable early in the season, but by the end, USC fielded one of the best defenses in the SEC — and perhaps the nation.