Q: How healthy is this team right now? What are the chances Connor Shaw, Mike Davis and Jadeveon Clowney are back to full strength after looking hobbled against Florida?
A: The Gamecocks are remarkably healthy for the most part. Particularly when you look at what has happened to the rest of the SEC East, South Carolina is counting its blessing from an injury standpoint. That being said, Clowney is not the same player he was a year ago, and some of that has to do with his foot. He has bone spurs in his foot that probably should have been operated on last offseason and might need surgery once this season is complete.
He watched the Coastal Carolina game wearing a walking boot and may very well show up Saturday in it. He can still wreck just about any play on which he puts his mind to it, but the ferocity we saw a year ago hasn’t shown up much this year. Mike Davis is hitting his freshman wall a year late. This is his first year carrying the load, and he’s just beat up. He sat out last week because of ankle, rib and foot injuries, and, two weeks ago against Florida, he didn’t show the same burst he has had. A week of rest should help that, and he’s still a home run threat every time he touches the ball.
Q. Shaw has always has been known as the jitterbug type who can squirt free for yardage and give defenses big headaches as a runner, and Clemson fans know that all too well from two years ago. But of late, he hasn’t looked nearly as mobile. Is this the product of defenses doing more to contain him, his injured knee, or maybe some of both?
A: Mostly it’s been a knee issue. He suffered a severe knee sprain on Oct. 19 against Tennessee, and last week against Costal Carolina was the first time he appeared to be close to his usual running speed. I really believe that, at full strength, Shaw steals more first downs than anybody in college football. By that I mean that when it’s third-and-6 and everything else has gone to pot, he will scramble for 7 yards. This offense needs that ability from him to operate at peak efficiency, and it certainly needs it from him to execute the game plan against Clemson, which will be to hold onto the ball as long as possible and pile up first down after first down. I’m not sure how much success defenses have had with a “spy” or similar strategy. He’s very elusive dude as you mentioned and can make a lot of linebackers miss, at least long enough to dive for a few more crucial yards.
Q: South Carolina’s defense has almost totally locked down Clemson’s offense during this four-game winning streak by the Gamecocks. How does this defense measure up to its predecessors, particularly the past two in 2011 and 2012?
A: If the Tigers and Gamecocks had played in the first half of the season, it might have gotten ugly for South Carolina. The chief problem early on for the Gamecocks was they replaced four senior linebackers who rotated at two spots (South Carolina plays two true linebackers and then a hybrid spur position) with four underclassmen, who were not only much more inexperienced but much smaller. That was a bad combination for the Gamecocks, who were blitzed by Georgia’s offense and then gave up three straight near comebacks in the second half against Vanderbilt, UCF and Kentucky.
However, as the linebackers got better (and, just as importantly, their teammates in the secondary began to trust them more and stopped trying to cover up for them, thus getting out of position themselves) the defense got better. The result: a defense that gave up an average of 25.8 points per game in the first five games hasn’t given up that many points to any of its last six opponents. The Gamecocks are allowing 15.7 points per game in the last six.
Q: Steve Spurrier has said the lofty preseason expectations were out of whack because the Gamecocks were really young on defense and people overlooked that in the midst of all the Clowney hysteria. How do you think they have progressed defensively over the season, and whom do they miss most from last year on that side of the ball?
A: Spurrier is always looking to outplay expectations, so he’s consistently going to tamp them down, but he has a point in that South Carolina was ranked a program-high No. 6 in the country during the preseason, but almost every team in the conference had more players on the various All-SEC teams. The defense was only young at linebacker. The struggles in the secondary (which have been mostly eliminated) and along the defensive line have nothing to do with age.
The player this defense misses most is probably 2012 Jadeveon Clowney. As we’ve talked about, he has not consistently been the player he was last year. So, while everyone assumed South Carolina would have the hands-down best defensive player in college football and a wrecking ball on every Saturday, what they have gotten instead is a very good college defensive end. That difference changes the entire dynamic of the defense. I don’t know if Tajh Boyd was scared of Clowney last year, but there were definitely some folks who were. He’s not as scary this year, and that matters.
Q: Seems Spurrier really enjoys needling Dabo Swinney at regular intervals. This obviously isn’t a new phenomenon, but what do you think is behind it? Is it his belief in the Sun Tzu “Art of War” notion of getting in the other guy’s head and winning the battle before the battle. OIs this it, or is it just Spurrier’s personality?
A: Spurrier definitely studies books such as “Art of War,” etc. He’s loves to quote Genghis Khan, but I think his barbs are a natural extension of his personality. I think if this kind of thing was a tactical maneuver designed to gain an edge, he would do it consistently, but he usually does it when he’s got the upper hand. I will say this, when Spurrier says he likes Dabo and has respect for how he does things in Clemson, I absolutely believe him. Spurrier, I don’t think, would equate his needling with dislike. I’m sure he considers himself buddies with Phil Fulmer still, and he needled Fulmer more than most. It does not surprise me to hear Swinney say this week that Spurrier is always nice to him to his face.
Q: Do USC players believe they’re in Clemson’s heads? Do they respect Clemson? And if they do have a mental edge, how important is that in these games?
A: Behind closed doors, they have to believe they are in Clemson’s head, but publicly they play it straight. Since he has been here, Spurrier has made an effort to downplay the emphasis on the Clemson game. He believed many South Carolina people were too obsessed with the Tigers for their own good, and he was probably right. He preaches taking things week to week, and for the most part this team has done that.
Honestly, I’m not sure they respect Clemson right now, but that’s the kind of thing that can change in a quarter so I’m not sure how much it factors into this game. I think that mental edge is big. Having watched Georgia struggle through the other end of it for so many years against Florida, I know it had a real impact from that side of things. I would think it would be the same from the good side of a streak.
Q: South Carolina has hit the jackpot in recent years by reeling in some elite in-state talent (Clowney, Lattimore, Gilmore, Jeffery, etc.) What is the shape of the program moving forward? Will they take a dip, or can they prolong their status as a fixture in the Top 10?
A: That’s kind of the $64 million question around here. I think this run of success was built on three pillars. No. 1 is Steve Spurrier, who is probably one of the 10 best college football coaches of all time. No. 2 is facilities, which are finally on par with the rest of the SEC. And, No. 3 is that talent you mention. It’s not just that South Carolina has been able to recruit the best player in the state consistently, it’s that that player has been a nationally elite guy. How many more runs like this will the state get when in such a short span it produces guys like those four? And how long will Spurrier stay? When those two pillars are gone, can the Gamecocks keep winning? It probably depends on who they hire to replace Spurrier whenever he does leave.
Q: For a while this season, the Gamecocks’ offense did really well on third down, but that statistic has dipped significantly in recent games. Is there a common thread you’ve been able to identify in watching replays of these games?
A: The numbers are pretty telling. South Carolina converted 53 percent of its third downs (45 of 85) through the first six games. That percentage plunged to 25.8 percent (15 of 58) in the four games prior to the Coastal Carolina game. I think it mostly goes back to Shaw’s running ability. He is such a first down machine when he’s healthy. Their run blocking also has been very inconsistent, which is kind of hard to explain for a veteran group that thought its run blocking was its strength coming into the season. More than once, Spurrier has expressed his frustration at how little faith he has being able to run for a first down on third-and-2 or a similar down and distance.
Q: Back in September, Georgia’s staff zeroed in on South Carolina’s smaller linebackers and successfully attacked that area with power runs and running back screens. Have other teams followed suit with that approach, and how much of a weakness has that been?
A: Not many folks have had the types of backs Georgia had during that game, and South Carolina’s linebackers have gotten a lot better so there haven’t been any real repeats of that performance. Not that there couldn’t be. If they faced an offense that was adept at running power football, they might be in trouble. Those linebackers have gotten smarter but they haven’t gotten any bigger.
Q: South Carolina’s offensive line entered the season with some high expectations. How have things gone for the guys up front, and how will they match up with a Clemson defensive line that’s been much more disruptive than last season?
A: That’ll be a huge question, and I, honestly, have no idea. There are opportunities for speedy rushers to get around the edge on these tackles, but there have been times when the Gamecocks have blocked those types of guys beautifully. On the flip side, I thought this group would be dominant run blockers and they haven’t been. Overall, their consistency has been nowhere near what you would expect from a bunch of underclassmen.