Deke Adams felt like the proverbial kid in a candy store when the phone rang in January.
“It was really easy,” South Carolina’s first-year defensive line coach said on Thursday. “Those guys opened their arms to me.”
The caller that day was defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, fresh off an 11-win season (the Gamecocks’ second straight) and boss of a unit that led the SEC in sacks and finished fourth in total defense. He wanted to know if Adams, who had just finished his first year at North Carolina after following Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora from Southern Miss, would be interested in coming to USC.
The Tar Heels were on the way up, after an 8-4 season that would have placed them in the ACC championship game had they been allowed to participate. NCAA sanctions took care of their postseason, but the Heels were building for the future.
Yet USC had won 22 games over two years, including its bowl games; had been a win away from playing for an SEC championship each year; had churned out NFL Draft picks like cars off the assembly line; and was being labeled as having its best chance yet to win the SEC in 2013.
Plus, Adams had watched along with the rest of the country as All-American and SEC Defensive Player of the Year Jadeveon Clowney leveled Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl, and he happened to play on the D-line, where the Gamecocks suddenly had a coaching opening.
“I get to coach that guy for a year, and be a part of that team?” The words looped through Adams’ head as Ward made his pitch. Once he finished, Adams said yes so fast that it seemed his bags already were packed.
Only two days from seeing Brad Lawing surprisingly leave USC for Florida, USC had its new defensive line coach. The transition has been seamless.
“I have a chance to coach Jadeveon,” Adams said. “Any coach in America could have walked in here and been a great coach when he steps on the field, because he’s an excellent player.
“It’s been fun. For a lot of the guys, (special teams coordinator/tight ends coach Joe Robinson) coached me my senior year in college, I coached with (secondary/assistant special teams coordinator coach) Grady Brown before, I’ve known coach Ward. The transition from staff to staff was excellent.”
Adams was in Columbia for spring practice. Despite having the deepest and (many say) most talented position group on the team and in the SEC, he began to tinker with the scheme. While Lawing’s charges played gaps, filling holes in the lines so that tailbacks and quarterbacks had nowhere to go, all the while steadily advancing for the tackle, Adams wants to be more aggressive. He began teaching his linemen to go after the ball more, instead of waiting for it to come to them.
So far, he has posted good results. It was expected, after a solid career at Southern Miss and then a seven-stop tour as an assistant coach, working his way up from schools as small as Ouachita Baptist to the big-time.
“I had several guys,” Ward said. “When I researched, Deke stood out. He’s been in the game, he’s worked his way up, he’s a good technique and fundamental coach. It was an easy decision.”
Now comes the hard part. USC’s defensive line — featuring Clowney and with two other starters in end Chaz Sutton and tackle Kelcy Quarles that could wind up on all-conference lists — is expected to be the linchpin of the team. The four in front are hoping to lay a smooth road for a young and inexperienced linebacking corps to find its way, and to aid a secondary that lost DeVonte Holloman and D.J. Swearinger.
It won’t be easy, as the Gamecocks will be playing the Tar Heels (yes, Adams will help with the scouting report) and Georgia back-to-back to start the season. With Clowney expected to draw double-teams throughout the year, the spotlight falls on Quarles, Sutton and either J.T. Surratt or Gerald Dixon Jr. to keep quarterbacks contained, or knock the legs from under tailbacks.
Talent-wise, there seems to be no way for the D-line to fail. But Adams is the guy in charge and has to keep it there.
“Sometimes when the play goes away, that’s one thing we talk about all the time,” Adams said. “We want to be consistent. Consistent is running to the football, playing your assignment, great technique, all the time. It’s been a good transition.”
Junior defensive end Jadeveon Clowney leads the returning group. Chaz Sutton is considered a “new” starter at end, but he’s played in 37 games over four years. Tackle Kelcy Quarles will start at one spot, and beside him will be a mix of veterans such as Gerald Dixon Jr., J.T. Surratt, Phillip Dukes and Deon Green. Gerald S. Dixon, Darius English and Deon Green also return.
End Devin Taylor and tackles Byron Jerideau and Aldrick Fordham.
Dixon Jr. and Surratt are competing for the starting tackle job beside Quarles, but as Adams said, nothing is entrenched. Dixon Jr. started two games last year as a redshirt freshman and won the Everyday Effort Award in the spring. Surratt is a fourth-year junior who has played in 13 games.
Can the defensive line ably hold the fort while a young linebackers group and a secondary filling holes get their feet wet? It’s a lot of pressure to ask of a group that is facing pass-happy quarterbacks in the first two games.
Player to watch
Clowney. Can he handle the hype of being a Heisman Trophy front-runner and potential No. 1 pick in the next NFL Draft? Will he be able to supply the jaw-dropping plays that he’s made during his first two years, game-to-game?