Ellis Johnson, who grew up in Winnsboro and has coached in just about every corner of the state on the high school and college levels, finally made it to USC in January as the Gamecocks’ defensive coordinator. The 56-year-old Johnson sat down with GoGamecocks The Magazine's Joseph Person to discuss his homecoming and his thoughts on the Gamecocks’ defense.
QUESTION: What’s been the best part about being back home?
ANSWER: It’s been kind of strange in some ways. I really haven’t seen my extended family. Being here in a familiar area, it’s really been kind of funny. Every year we planned at least one week of our vacation time, we’d come over here and run around and see family and hang out. So that week got here, and we sort of didn’t know where to go.
The professional side of it’s been good. . . . We’re changing the scheme, changing some of the Xs and Os. I’ve got to get to know personnel. But I’ve worked with all three of these defensive coaches before, and that helps. Personalities-wise, we’d all met each other, knew each other and so forth.
Q: What’s been the most challenging aspect of the transition?
A: I guess the timing aspect. It was a very limited amount of time that I got to get in the offseason program and look at the kids and get to know them. Even to this day, when I sit down with someone like you, I have to pull out the depth chart to make sure one of them doesn’t slip my mind.
Q: You mentioned a different scheme; how different will the defense look?
A: I think our basic scheme is a lot different than it was last year. They were more of a 3-4 team last year, and the more film I’ve watched, the more I’ve seen we’re not very much alike at all. We’ll be much more of a 4-3 (or) 4-2. We’ll wind up playing two linebackers and three safeties quite a bit. . . . I think we’ll probably pressure and blitz a little bit more than I’ve been doing the last few years because I think we’re a little more skilled at the coverage spots out back, and we’re definitely more mobile and faster up front than I’ve been lately.
Q: It sounds like you’re going to need some depth at the safety position.
A: When I say three safeties, a lot of people play that third linebacker or that third safety – “spur,” as we’re going to call him – he’s a field-side linebacker, almost like a nickel back. And what you’re asking him to do is not play a lot of man coverage on wide receivers, but he’s got to be able to play great coverage out in space. I think South Carolina’s basic defensive scheme two years ago was really more similar to what we’re doing now than last year. . . . It’s just some guys are lined up in some different positions, and we’re calling some things by some different terminology.
Q: Speaking of guys in different positions, you turned a lot of heads in the spring by moving Eric Norwood from end to linebacker. Are you confident that’s his best position?
A: To help us, it is. Now Eric today weighs about 270 (pounds). He’s going to be playing rush end in our four-man (front) dime package, our third-down package. So he’s got to stay in tune with that type of position. It’s going to enable us, if some other linebackers step up and we can put him back to that position, we’ll be fine. But we came in originally (and) were going to put Cliff Matthews in the backer package and put Eric in the front. The more we went through it, and the guys on the staff and I started to see where we were going and they realized where I wanted to take it, we flopped those two guys. I think it’s definitely a good swap for both of them.
What Norwood’s doing at the position we’ve got him is playing in the box a lot versus the run; he’s blitzing off the edge and up inside as a linebacker. And at 270 pounds, that’s a plus.
Q: At middle linebacker, you have got an All-SEC type of guy coming back. What are your expectations for Jasper Brinkley?
A: I hope the sky’s the limit. And I’m not putting any pressure on him. But he’s proven in his year and two games here he’s a big-time football player. The main thing we wanted to make sure he did in the offseason is he learns the scheme and we keep him healthy because he’s older and he’s proven. I hope he’ll bring back some leadership, some poise, mental toughness. The first half of the season, it was the defense that gave them the opportunity to be a good football team. From the time they were ranked sixth or seventh in the nation to the time that they went through a five-game slide, it was the injuries and the lack of leadership on defense that hurt. And he’s obviously the main one.
Q: Where do you think this defense’s strength is going to be?
A: It’s kind of hard for me to judge it right now. We’ve got Nathan Pepper coming back off of a rehab that’s not completed but going well. Brinkley didn’t practice in the spring. Dusty Lindsey didn’t practice in the spring. When you look at the (guys) coming back on paper, we should be a very strong, physical, dominant front seven.
When you look at what’s actually on the field in the spring, it wasn’t quite back there yet. So there’s still some fill-in-the-blanks. The things I liked in the spring is that our corners can cover. Our safeties are good football players and good run-support players. They pick up things real fast. But there’s not much depth behind them that’s proven. You take (Chris) Culliver and (Mark) Barnes and we move them real late (from receiver), but, boy, just first look, they can be great players back there. But they don’t know the scheme; they’re not ready to play yet. So we’ve got a very short time with which to get them ready.
Now all of a sudden we go from two or three proven players to four. When I say those four, I’m talking about (Darian) Stewart and (Emanuel) Cook and Barnes and Culliver. Those are four really good football players. I’m very impressed with Barnes and Culliver. That enables us to take a look at a young guy like Antonio Allen, Jay Spearman, some of those guys, to see where they fit in the best. Antonio Allen is a kid I’d like to move up there and look at him as our outside field safety or field linebacker - the spur. He’s an immature kid. He hasn’t been very consistent in his offseason preparation. But he’s got a lot of natural ability.
I think if everybody comes back healthy and everybody’s healthy when we line up for that first ball game, I really think the strength is the front seven – the overall ability. I hope we can dominate the line of scrimmage.
Q: How would you compare it to other groups you’ve had elsewhere?
A: Just pure talent, we’re better than we were at Mississippi State. We look like at some spots a lot like we did with some of the teams I was involved with at Alabama. Just physical talent. The one thing we’ve got to prove is whether we can get it across the finish line. . . . You don’t win big in this league unless you win close games. And that has more to do with maturity and discipline and dependability than it does talent.
Q: When you had your health scare (Johnson was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in 1993 while at Alabama), did it force you to look at some things differently in terms of taking care of yourself?
A: No question about it. I’m a little more conscious of health habits and exercise. When I had that health scare, I was single and didn’t have family, and that makes it a lot easier to accept something like that. It’d be a lot more difficult now because there are so many other people depending on you. But it does make you take stock of a lot of things.
I think I probably work harder than I used to. I appreciate the daily aspects of my job more than I do the Saturday afternoons now. The interactions with people. You really do. You go through something like that, you start realizing just how much fun it is - some of the things you took for granted. How important they are. I probably work at it a little bit harder. I know I do a better job with personal relationships both in work and in social situations. And just taking life day by day, you appreciate it a lot more.