Will Muschamp was running through the background of his newest coaching hire when he dropped a small nugget about why he hired John Scott Jr., which started with the last coach he worked for.
“Todd Bowles is a 3-4 guy,” Muschamp said. “It’s hard to find D-line coaches that know how to teach two-gap. He knows how to coach it. It’s exactly how we coach it. Some of the one-gap ideas they had very good.”
South Carolina’s defense under Muschamp has operated under the nebulous term of “multiple,” a buzzword that becomes a catch-all for a scheme that does a little of this and a little of that.
So this might not point to any notable change, but it does highlight, to a degree, a personality of the defense that isn’t often discussed.
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South Carolina’s defense really isn’t a traditional 3-4. The largest rotation defensive lineman was Javon Kinlaw, who is tall but less bulky (305 pounds) and more disruptive than most true nose tackles. The team’s defensive end rotation was ravaged by injury, so it’s hard to classify the versatile Bucks or Sam linebackers as the primary pass-rushing outside players that populate 3-4s.
But USC’s personnel is in some sense shifting a little more in that direction. Look no farther than the way the recruits were designated coming out of Wednesday’s signing day.
Rodricus Fitten, who would have been listed as an end a few years ago, was listed as either a Buck or strongside linebacker. Those positions aren’t synonymous, but there’s a lot of overlap.
What’s more, the Gamecocks didn’t add a defensive player between 235 pounds (Fitten) and 270 (end Joseph Anderson). The three incoming linemen were listed at 270, 293 and 314 pounds, and Muschamp said all could be inside guys or rush from the edge.
That’s a theme that carries over from last year, when tackles Rick Sandidge and Kingsley Enagbare both had background as edge rushers.
That size from the linemen allows for some versatility of alignment, and the Gamecocks at times have played around with exactly what their looks will be.
When Muschamp refers to “two-gap,” that means defenders playing heads up on an offensive lineman, having responsibilities for the gaps on both sides of them. It’s a stapled of the 3-4. A one-gap defense aligns front defenders between offensive linemen, ready to attack and control the gap in front of them (most 4-3 defenses are one-gap).
Modern 3-4 defenses tend to have three bigger linemen, who can control gaps and create a little havoc, a pair of outside rushers and mobile interior linebacker. In nickel situations, they either pull the nose tackle and slide the linebackers in to create a facsimile of a four-man line, or sometimes just replace the strongside linebacker with a nickel and have a strong pass rusher as a versatile edge option.
At South Carolina, the Buck is that versatile edge option. When they face more heavy-personnel offense, the Gamecocks use a Buck and strongside linebacker, which creates a 3-4 look of sorts. Most of the time USC is in nickel anyway, but even then it will sometimes move a Buck to the “end” spot (notably when that’s 260-pound D.J. Wonnum), and slide a strongside backer like Bryson Allen-Williams to Buck.
The Gamecocks at times will also align nickel Jaycee Horn close to the box, where a 3-4 linebacker will traditionally be.
As Muschamp said, there still are one-gap elements to what USC does. Unless Josh Belk suddenly becomes an anchor, the Gamecocks will still have many more disruptive interior defensive linemen than true nose tackles (recruiting those true middle guys just can be tough, to say the least).
But Scott’s background is still very much about the 3-4. He ran it at Texas Tech, with the New York Jets and was brought in at Arkansas to help install it for Bret Bielema. He’s joining a defense that almost never had its top two pass rushers together, and last season had issues against the run and was average getting to the quarterback.
So it will be worth watching what USC does going forward, and how Scott can mold the eight four- or five-star linemen now under his guidance.