Ellis Johnson was a 32-year-old assistant coach at Appalachian State in 1984 when South Carolina was swarming opponents with its Fire Ants defense, so named for its speed and garnet uniforms.
Johnson, a Winnsboro native, faced the Fire Ants the following three seasons while at East Carolina and is familiar with one of the lasting legacies from the Joe Morrison era.
USC broke out the all-garnet look Thursday for a 16-10 victory against No. 4 Mississippi that was the first home win against a top-five opponent in school history. Given the uniform colors and the Gamecocks’ fast attack on the Ole Miss offense, Johnson was asked whether he might be overseeing a reincarnation of the ’84 defense — Fire Ants 2.0 maybe?
“That was a pretty fast group. They could really run. Of course, I think we are (fast), too,” Johnson said Friday. “But at this point, we haven’t proved it week in and week out down through an entire season. I don’t know if you can put us in that bracket.”
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Maybe not, but the Gamecocks (3-1, 1-1 in SEC) turned heads Thursday by shutting down the nation’s third-highest-scoring offense and demoralizing Rebels quarterback Jevan Snead, thought by some to be a first-round pick in April’s NFL draft.
Despite injuries to a number of key players, the Gamecocks held Ole Miss 38.5 points below its season average and limited Snead to a career-low 107 passing yards.
“For the most part, we played faster than they did and made some plays at critical times,” said Johnson, assistant head coach for defense.
Johnson, a Citadel man who was the coach at his alma mater from 2001-03, had left Mississippi State for Arkansas last winter when Steve Spurrier called him with a job offer.
Brian VanGorder, Spurrier’s first choice, had returned to the Atlanta Falcons after less than a month at USC. Spurrier turned to a man with a dozen years of SEC experience who was looking to get closer to home with an eye on retiring in South Carolina.
It has been a good fit. Spurrier has given the 57-year-old Johnson control of the defense, which finished 13th nationally in Johnson’s first year.
A little more than halfway through last season, Spurrier gave Johnson a one-year extension through the 2011 season. Johnson is the Gamecocks’ highest-paid assistant, at $350,000 a year.
Johnson, a former South Carolina high school coach who was a Clemson assistant under Tommy West, has tapped into his contacts across the state for recruiting. Last year he landed South Pointe High School defensive backs Stephon Gilmore and DeVonte Holloman, who were among four freshman defenders on the field together against Ole Miss.
Johnson has concerns about the inexperience of his young players, many of whom have been thrust into more prominent roles because of injuries.
“When you look at the depth chart, there are some flashing yellow lights on that thing that you hope you can overcome,” Johnson said.
But the defense also has its share of established players.
All-SEC linebacker Eric Norwood became the school’s all-time sacks leader with two against Ole Miss. Defensive end Cliff Matthews also sacked Snead twice, while veteran safeties Chris Culliver and Darian Stewart combined for 13 tackles and three pass breakups.
While preparing for Ole Miss, Johnson told his players to go all-out.
“Just be relentless out there. Just go full speed, full tilt in anything you do,” Culliver recalled Johnson saying. “If you bust an assignment, just go full speed and try to make a play.”
Like the famed Fire Ants, the Gamecocks have speed to burn — a necessity in the SEC.
“We might be just another bunch in this league. But we’re fast,” Johnson said. “We’re not exceptionally big, but we can run. And I think we have to be able to sometimes compensate for our size. ... But overall team speed, I think we play with anybody.”