USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Wards understands that fans are upset with coaches and players on his side of the football for giving up two fourth-quarter touchdowns in last week’s narrow 28-25 victory over UCF.
Long pass plays of 73 and 79 yards almost cost the Gamecocks dearly.
“All the criticism we get, we deserve because anytime you give up 152 yards in two plays, obviously, something is wrong,” Ward said after Thursday’s practice. “We addressed it, and we’ve got good kids. We understand when we make mistakes what we need to do to fix them.”
Ward refused to blame any single position and noted that his unit had a solid week of practice, which included working on avoiding the breakdowns that lead to big gains.
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“We took a lot of time to work on pursuit angles and things like that -- little things that sometimes you take for granted as coaches that you can’t overlook when you’ve got a lot of young guys in the second level of your defense,” he said.
He realizes Kentucky will present a different set of challenges Saturday night because of a two-quarterback system that features a passer in Maxwell Smith and a runner in Jalen Whitlow.
“They’re two different kinds of quarterbacks. We know if No. 2 (Whitlow) is in the ballgame, they’re going to run the football a lot more than No. 11 (Smith) will,” Ward said. “No. 11 is more of the passing quarterback, but you’re going to have to stop both of them. They’ve played both all season, and we fully expect them to play both this game.”
But he knows the biggest issue will be finding consistency across all four quarters from the defensive front, linebackers and secondary.
“We’ve got to make sure all 11 are doing what the defense calls for them to do, and we’ll be OK,” Ward said.
Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney sat out Thursday’s practice with what Ward called “a little rib bruise.”
But he called the overall health of the defense good and believes Clowney will “be ready to play.” Linebacker Cedrick Cooper, who injured his elbow in the preseason, returned to the lineup against UCF and got his first work of the season.
“We expect Cedrick to get better and help us,” Ward said.
Connor Shaw (shoulder), Rory Anderson (back) and defensive tackle Phillip Dukes (sprained left knee) all practiced Thursday.
Other players who did not practice or wore yellow jerseys were: Devin Washington (concussion), Brandon Wilds (dislocated elbow), Cody Waldrop (sprained ankle), and Mike Matulis (shoulder).
Junior defensive end Kelcy Quarles made improvements Saturday against UCF but still needs to play better, defensive line coach Deke Adams said.
“I felt like he played hard and did some good things, but he is nowhere near where his potential can be, and he knows that and we have talked about it,” Adams said.
Quarles is 13th on the team in tackles with eight. He also is tied with Jadeveon Clowney for the team lead in sacks with two.
South Carolina still is playing its rabbit package, or at least a version of it, and if no one is noticing that’s probably an indictment of its effectiveness, Adams said.
“We have been in some packages where we have had three d-ends on the field,” Adams said. “Maybe you just didn’t notice it or maybe they didn’t do anything to cause you to notice it, but we have done a good bit of it. Hopefully, this week we will have a chance to do more of it.”
Last year, the Gamecocks had success last year using four defensive ends on the line of scrimmage at once with Clowney, Devin Taylor, Chaz Sutton and Aldrick Fordham. Now that Taylor and Fordham are gone, South Carolina must use two sophomores – some combination of Darius English, Mason Harris or Gerald Dixon – if it wants to use four ends at the same time.
Linebacker T.J. Holloman says his position group is just as responsible for pass coverage as the defensive backs.
“We have the under routes and we are supposed to keep everything in front of us and break on the ball and make tackles in front of us,” Holloman said.
Opponents have hurt South Carolina all season by completing passes in the middle of the field, particularly slant routes, which Holloman says the Gamecocks have seen a lot of all season.
“We are not going to be able to stop many slants, but we can break on those and make tackles,” Holloman said.
The Gamecocks are 10th in the SEC in passing defense, allowing 252 yards per game through the air.