Facing a Georgia team renowned for its fearsome run game last week, South Carolina’s secondary struggled to stop freshman quarterback Jake Fromm from connecting on shorter slants and hook routes, leading to 196 passing yards, a 72 percent completion rate and two touchdowns through the air.
For a coach like Will Muschamp, who played safety in college and got his start in coaching with defensive backs, such a performance wasn’t good enough, a fact that was apparent Tuesday as he and his players addressed the media.
“The coaches felt that the front seven (of the defense) played well (but) felt like the back end didn’t do too well, so from the coaches’ perspective I’d say it wasn’t too good,” senior defensive back D.J. Smith said of the Georgia game.
“They did come out making some plays, you don’t want to get beat deep, so you play a little timid sometimes, they came out and completed some of those, but there’s nothing you can really do about that. It’s just football. ... You’d rather be safe than sorry.”
However, the Gamecocks secondary did have some bright spots, like junior Steven Montac forcing a fumble in the red zone and senior Jamarcus King recording three pass breakups.
But according to Smith, the coaching staff was displeased with one of King’s breakups, a long pass down the middle of the field that he swatted down. Instead, the coaches wanted King to try for an interception and make a game-changing play.
Yet as South Carolina prepares to face a Florida team that ranks 104th in the nation in passing offense and averages 1.33 interceptions per game, Muschamp made it clear he wants his defensive backs to attack the ball, especially when they are “in phase,” or within arm’s length of the receiver.
“If I’m not in phase with the receiver, that means I can’t touch the receiver, the quarterback’s not throwing it to me, he’s throwing it to him,” Muschamp said Tuesday. “So the worst thing I can do is read back, create more separation ... and watch him complete the pass, because that’s what’s going to happen. So if we’re in phase with the receiver, which means we can touch the receiver, we want to make a play on the ball.”
Muschamp did say, however, that he recognized the difficulty in playing this style as more and more teams use a route that exploits this defensive system.
“Now you have all these teams, including ours, that throw these back shoulder fades, making it even more (challenging),” Muschamp said. “Because if you do work in phase to go play the ball, and they throw a back shoulder fade, everyone in the stands is going, ‘What in the world are they teaching these kids?’ So now you gotta feel if he’s falling back with his inside shoulder and you gotta play out of phase through the receiver. We work a lot with our back to the ball, and we try to drill a lot of those things, obviously, throughout every week.”