As he walked off the practice field Tuesday evening, South Carolina defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix was met by about 10 reporters — a larger crowd than Nix usually attracts.
It was far from a firing line: Nix fielded no questions about his job security, a popular topic on Internet message boards this week. In fact, Nix essentially spent 10 minutes answering variations of the same question:
What’s wrong with the Gamecocks’ defense?
While offering few specifics about his schemes, Nix gave a blunt assessment of a defense that has surrendered 1,188 yards and 99 points and forced two punts the past two weeks in losses to Arkansas and Florida.
“Some of the guys we’ve had out there haven’t played very tough and they haven’t played with outstanding effort. I’m the idiot because I keep putting them out there and allowing it,” Nix said. “I’ve got to do a better job of evaluating what we’re doing, and who’s performing (and) who’s not.”
Nix, in his second full season running the USC defense, pointed to three problem areas: an inability to shed blockers, poor tackling and shoddy effort. The 35-year-old Nix said there likely would be several new starters for the Clemson game, with preference given to those exhibiting maximum work ethic.
Nix said walk-on safety Mike Newton might get a shot to replace cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who could be out for the season with a foot injury. Newton, a transfer from Newberry, has played sparingly on special teams and has not recorded a tackle.
Asked about defensive tackle Marque Hall, who has seven starts following season-ending knee surgery in 2006, Nix said the redshirt junior “hasn’t played so hot.” Hall is tied for 12th on the team with 21 tackles and has one sack.
Nix accepted part of the blame for the Gamecocks’ third-down woes against Arkansas and Florida, who combined to convert 22 of 29 third-down chances.
“The things that we did on third downs, a lot of them were mistakes, missed tackles,” Nix said. “And then some of it was poor calls or game plan. Some of it was me.”
Nix used a three-man front against the Gators with defensive end Clifton Geathers, a 6-foot-7 freshman, aligned at nose guard. Nix said the new wrinkle was designed to get a taller player in the face of quarterback Tim Tebow in passing situations.
Tebow passed for a career-high 304 yards without getting sacked once in 32 pass attempts.
“It didn’t work,” Nix said. “So we’re not going to do it again.”
But senior defensive back Brandon Isaac said Nix’s schemes are not the problem.
“We just ain’t making plays. We ain’t getting off blocks. We’re missing a lot of tackles,” Isaac said. “We ain’t running to the ball. It’s just us wanting to make a play. We got to make plays to win.”
Nix, Southern Miss’ defensive coordinator before coming to USC in 2005, refused to blame the loss of all-SEC middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley (out since September with a knee injury) or fatigue on the Gamecocks’ meltdown. USC played 11 consecutive games before its open date.
USC is last in the SEC and 106th among 119 teams nationally in rushing defense, allowing 208.9 yards a game. The Gamecocks are ninth in the conference in total defense (372.2 ypg).
Nix has had company on the defensive field this week. USC coach Steve Spurrier is spending more time with the defense after it managed to vault two players — Arkansas tailback Darren McFadden and Tebow — to the top of the Heisman Trophy lists in consecutive weeks.
“He’s the head coach. Head coach has the right and freedom to do whatever he wants to do,” Nix said. “If he wants to spend time watching us, he pays us to get a job done, so he can watch us.”
When asked about Nix this week, Spurrier said he had confidence in all his coaches.
According to Nix, Spurrier told him he wanted him to work on fundamentals and get his best players on the field. The Gamecocks are also working on disguising their defenses better, Nix said.
Ultimately, players will determine whether the defense reverts to its midseason form.
“Football hasn’t changed. And the team that blocks the best, or the team that gets off blocks and tackles the best is going to win,” Nix said. “And we haven’t done that very well.”