For South Carolina defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson, the difference between Year 1 and Year 2 of his Gamecocks defense means the difference between prevention and cure.
“You have some things in the tool box that you want to do, but in your first year you’re not sure about calling them,” Robinson said. “A lot of times last year we had to kind of condense what we did. We had to do some things to try not to give up a play. Now we can go out there and be more aggressive about how we call it and try to make a play.”
South Carolina was seventh in the SEC in total defense (411.9 yards allowed per game) and eighth in scoring defense (26.5 points allowed per game) in its first year under head coach Will Muschamp and longtime defensive protégé Robinson. Now the Gamecocks want to better those numbers despite losing five defensive starters from a year ago.
Robinson hopes what his team lost in manpower can be made up for with a creativity made possible by more experience in the system.
“We have a lot of different guys that have certain skill sets,” he said, “and we just have to find those skill sets and utilize them to best fit the team.”
The return of linebacker Skai Moore will help the entire unit in that regard, Robinson said. Moore, who led the team in tackles in 2013, 2014 and 2015 before missing the 2016 season due to a neck injury, will play weakside linebacker but can be deployed in multiple ways because of his speed and athleticism.
“I’m allowed to run around a little more and use my versatility and my athleticism in this type of defense,” Moore said. “You will see me doing a lot of stuff you probably haven’t seen me do in the past so I am excited about that.”
“We will use him all over the field,” Robinson echoed. “He will be able to help us in a lot of different ways.”
The Gamecocks can operate out of a 4-3 alignment (four defensive linemen and three linebackers) or a 3-4 (three linemen and four linebackers), middle linebacker T.J. Brunson said. South Carolina made liberal use of a nickel package (five defensive backs and two linebackers) under Robinson and Muschamp last year and likely will again this year.
“Everyone is more comfortable with the calls and the rotations that we run this year,” Brunson said. “It’s just another year under the system. We’re a lot more comfortable across the board.”
When South Carolina uses a base 4-3 look, senior Bryson Allen-Williams will be alongside them at linebacker, but Allen-Williams has spent lots of preseason practice time at the Buck defensive end position. During Monday night’s open practice, Allen-Williams was lined up at one defensive end spot with regular Buck starter Dennis Wonnum at the other end position, an indication the Gamecocks are able to deploy what they consider their best assets in a variety of ways.
“Right now we’re working on getting that perfect combination of guys on the field at the same time,” Bucks and outside linebackers coach Mike Peterson said.
That combination will change each week based on the opponent, Robinson said. Adjusting to those weekly demands was not something the Gamecocks did well last year.
“We play a bunch of different teams,” Robinson said. “We have some two-back teams, we have some spread teams and we play them early.”
This time, he thinks, they’ll be more ready.